by Daniel Hathaway
We interviewed St. Olaf Choir conductor Anton Armstrong as a preview to the Choir’s performance at Severance Hall on Monday, February 1. Part two will appear here on Thursday, January 28.
Daniel Hathaway: You sang in the St. Olaf Choir as an undergraduate. Did you every dream that you’d become the fourth conductor of the group?
Anton Armstrong: My friends said I did. I’d always hoped to have had something like the St. Olaf Choir. This is my twentieth year here, and even twenty years ago I’m not sure that I quite fit the profile in all the ways. But certainly it’s been a good twenty-year ride here so far, and I think I have a few more years in me.
DH: How did you end up attending St. Olaf in the first place?
AA: Well, I’m originally from New York and I heard the choir there as a high school student, but I didn’t seriously think of coming this far west. As I looked at schools and at my interests at the time — which were not just music — I had a very strong interest in theology and was thinking I might become a pastor. My mother said I would have made a good pastor — “you’re so sinful you’d understand everybody in your congregation!” I also had an interest at that time in PoliSci. St. Olaf certainly had very strong programs in the religion and music areas — and also a very credible PoliSci program. Soon after I got into school, “Paper Chase” came out with John Houseman, and I thought, no, I don’t want to do that! It scared the heebie jeebies out of me. But I was attracted to St. Olaf because of the community of faith, and because of its superior music program, but I knew at that point that I wasn’t a conservatory type of human being. I had to have more to me and surrounding me than music. What I found at St. Olaf’s then and it’s certainly more true now, is a conservatory level experience but within the context of a liberal arts college. For me, it was a good match.
Now, do I love cold weather? No. My parents are from the Caribbean and my DNA says I should be someplace else, but other than dealing with the external elements, the internal community is a very wonderful place to be. It struggles with things like all communities do, but I think their basic sense of core values, their commitment to excellence, and certainly the legacy of support for the arts and the central importance of the arts as a major aspect of a liberal arts education are things that keep me here. And I have these incredible students who are in the throes of preparing for two pre-tour concerts tomorrow and Sunday here in southern Minnesota, and I’ve just been awestruck by their commitment not only to learn this music, but memorizing the stuff. This year I’ve thrown some challenging pieces at them with some challenging language issues. They’re singing in Hebrew, they’re singing in Persian — and Persian is a doozey! And Latin and English and German. And they’re doing this with great aplomb. I’m just very proud of that. The hard work ethic is part of midwestern life. You can listen to Garrison [Keillor] every Saturday evening, and there’s a lot of Lake Woebegon in this joint — the good and the bad. I’m fortunate that the good part of it is the hard work ethic. It’s something they want to do well, and not just to bring some kind of glory to a tradition. They respect the tradition they’re part of, they’re stewards of the tradition, but it’s more than just one of performance or artistic excellence. It’s one of mastering this music in a way that they can internalize it and then share it as gifts so it’s a transformational experience not only for them but for the audience as well.
DH: Will everything on the concert be sung from memory?
AA: Yes. I have to say for myself that I used to start as my predecessors did with everything memorized, but some of these scores are getting a bit challenging for me, and twenty years later I’m not holding things quite as well, so with a few of these more challenging scores, I do use music — vanity is not as important as being accurate. But the singers learn everything from memory.
DH: I was going to say: it’s a great thing working with young people because they don’t know when something is really difficult — you just tell them where you’re going and they’ll get there. I notice you’re singing sixteen concerts in seventeen days, which would fry many a professional. How do keep your singers fresh and rested?
AA: It really is a sense of the self-discipline that we ask of them. We do have quiet periods on the bus — they need it for their vocal health, and the conductor and the manager need it just to maintain our stamina. I’ve been with the choir for twenty years, but my colleague Bob Johnson is in his thirty-second year as manager. Bob just hit sixty-one and became a grandfather last year. He says to me, “I’ve got four more years in me to do this”. I say, “No, no, you’ve got a few more years than that”. But we do ask the singers to be responsible. We don’t put curfews on them at night, but they understand, as Bob has said night after night for years, “we’re only as good as our last performance”.
DH: Are you doing home stays?
AA: No. This year because of several issues — I have seventy five singers and another fourteen instrumentalists I’m bringing as a chamber orchestra — it gets to be daunting for hosts. I hosted this choir three times elsewhere before I took the job. The first two times I was game, but the third time, I found enough money to put them in a hotel. So now we are doing hotels. We’re in a lot of big cities and it just gets too difficult to house them without asking young people to travel 45-50 minutes after a long night’s concert. Both spouses in many households are working and they need to get to work on time. So we were finding that sometimes the kids’ sleep was being interrupted and it’s better for us to keep them in hotels. The manager and I treat them as young adults. Now if you cross that line, there will be quick and severe repercussions. And I will say that they are their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers — especially the seniors. I have a fair number of seniors in this choir. It’s their last tour and for several of these kids, it’s their first year in the choir. They don’t want it to be mucked up by a lot of immature behavior. Am I saying these kids are perfect? No. A few of them push the rules, yes, but the majority of them don’t and they self-police, they self-monitor. A few of them will stay out late, but about the third night in — hopefully it’s the night after your concert in Cleveland — they’ll discover quite frankly that bus sleep does not substitute for evening sleep. They’re generally mature about these things. This is the hardest tour for us in many ways. While it’s exhilarating to sing in major concert halls like your beautiful Severance, it’s intimidating. Plus it’s the reality of singing and having a group of students who are still young undergraduates fill that hall with sound. It’s not like singing in some churches that are very nice, but seat only 800 to a thousand. Singing in 2,500 seat halls — there are four or five of those on this tour — that takes a major type of energy. We have been so delighted to come back to Severance. I’m a New Yorker and I love Severance. Carnegie is still my favorite, but Severance is up there. But I have to tell you when I ask the kids who were in the choir in 2005 when we were there, while they really enjoyed Carnegie, Severance was at the top of their list.
DH: The choir has always had a strong Scandinavian history. How has the choir changed over the decades, and what innovations have you brought to it.
AA: The founder, F. Melius Christiansen brought what he knew as an immigrant from Norway — the choral music of the great 19th century Scandinavians — but he also knew the music of Bach from his training in Leipzig on two occasions. So from the earliest days, Bach’s motets have been featured. In those early days, in a cappella performances. Later, in my predecessors’ and my time, primarily with instruments. Grieg was a favorite of the founder, and he also programmed his own compositions. When F. Melius Christiansen began this choir, it wasn’t so much to be a concert instrument — it really had to do with (and his words ring true a hundred years later) “the lamentable state of church music: we have young people forgetting the great hymns of their heritage and singing a lot of the contemporary pablum of the time”.
DH: That sounds familiar!
AA: Very familiar. While he embraced some baroque music and sprinkled in some Vaughan Williams, F. Melius Christiansen stuck to music of the late nineteenth century. His son Olaf joined us in 1941 — Olaf had sung in the choir with his father, graduated in the class of 1925, had been at several institutions, but immediately before coming to St. Olaf, was at Oberlin. Most people there will remember the golden years of Robert Fountain — I almost went to study with him when he was at Madison — I had great admiration for him. But before Fountain was there, Olaf was at Oberlin for 12 years. When he came to St. Olaf, he shared the choir with his father for two years — which I understand were very interesting years with father and son both conducting. But at Oberlin, he had developed an interest in the early Baroque and Renaissance, so he added music of the renaissance to the Choir’s repertory. And then he was also a champion of the music for his day. When he was at Oberlin, it’s believed that he did the first performance of the Fauré Requiem in this country with orchestra. He was a champion of Darius Milhaud, and the Swiss-American composer Jean Berget. But Olaf stayed very directly in sacred music — both Christiansens didn’t veer outside that sphere. But Olaf brought the choir another step forward in that expansion of the literature. He did retain a lot of his father’s concept of vocal tone, which was a very refined, pure sound, but a sound that I would call a sound of conformity. When Kenneth Jennings took the helm of the choir in 1968, he too had sung in the choir under Olaf Christiansen — he was a graduate of 1950. But Jennings had also been a voice teacher. He represented a change in eras and he wanted a freer sound. He always kidded that when he took the choir, he felt that the sound had gotten a little stiff, and so he uncorked the vibrato bottle, let the genie out and in his next twenty-two years, he tried to put the cork back on. He was an incredible mentor to me. He added music of contemporary periods and introduced instruments, so we could look back especially at the baroque and the early Viennese classical period and with the far superior instrumental teaching force now at the college, as he had from the late sixties onward, he could do small chamber works. This year, for instance, I’m bringing out an ensemble of strings and winds that will allow us to do the Bach motet with double chorus and premiering several new pieces for strings and winds.
And then Jennings was very musicologically conscious. His aim was to perform things with greater integrity — I don’t know about authenticity. That word that is used by so many period performers is taken out of context, because unless you lived in certain times, you can’t tell me you’re being authentic. And Jennings added secular repertory to the literature and also started opening the realm of global music as the choir toured to Asia, and as the Iron Curtain was coming down very near to the end of his tenure, looking at music from eastern Europe. When I assumed the helm in 1990, I inherited a very fine instrument. I had also had an incredible twelve years of experiences conducting the symphony chorus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, choirs at Calvin College where I taught for ten years. At St. Olaf, I liken the changes I’ve made to the palette of tonal color — which is still to some degree limited because of the ages of the singers — to the way i cook. The years of the Christiansens were seasoned with salt and pepper, Jennings added a little bit more spice, and I kicked the door open with a lot of hot sauce at times. And so our repertory has really broadened to include not just the folk music but also the art music of a global nature, and the use of language.There’s a Persian piece on this program that requires different sounds from us. It requires a multi-faceted vocal palette, but I also have to add here it’s a good vocal help for these young singers. This is the first time I think in a number of years that, while the program is diverse in terms of chronological and geographical locations of composers and eras and all the like, it’s the first program in a long time that’s almost if not entirely sacred in nature. The Bar Xizam, the Persian piece, is kind of a universal message. I think if a secularist looked at it he could say, OK, that’s fine. I think that for somebody who had some kind of spiritual / religious background it’s not an invocation of the deity, but you certainly see a spirituality. There have been other years when we’ve examined a wider palette in terms of sacred and secular, but for me, that division becomes less and less the older I get. I don’t think that Brahms was being any more religious when he wrote the Requiem than when he wrote some of his beautiful part songs. It’s the same composer at work. So anyway, I just think it’s my role to expand the program to constantly meet the new challenges, program new commissions, and new works, and develop concert programs that will speak both aesthetically, spiritually, and I hope with a social consciousness, to the audience as well.
DH: How did you find the Persian piece — or did it find you?
AA: Both. Abbie Betinis is graduate of St. Olaf’s. She has now established herself in the upper midwest and nationally as an incredible young composer. She sang with the Dale Whalen singers and composed for them, and she has written for some of our more significant ensembles in the upper midwest. The piece that we’re performing is a result of a commissioning competition on the west coast. There’s been a kind of serendipity to the way I put this program together. There was another piece I really wanted to do this year. Of the four unaccompanied choruses of Robert Schumann, ‘Talisman’ was the one that always struck me. It’s a bugger to sing in tune. It’s in C Major and it wanders all over the place and keeps coming back to C Major, and that’s hard to tune. Schumann has set a text of Goethe, and Goethe was reading medieval Persian poetry when he created it. Now in the text “Gottes ist der Orient! Gottes ist der Okzident!”, Goethe used the German word “Gottes” when the original Persian word is “Allah”. And the whole idea of Talisman is not a western term, it’s an eastern term. When you go back to Goethe’s imagery, you see him obviously taking images coming out of eastern culture and then transforming them in his poetry into something that would be relatable and understandable to his readers and the people of his time. Then this Bar Xizam came to me through Abbie last June, and at the same point I found this wonderful piece, a setting by a Polish, Jewish composer, Louis Lewandowski. Enosh is a psalm setting, and I found this through a colleague I’m very indebted to, Joshua Jacobson of Northeastern University, who’s emerged as one of the leading ethnomusicologists in the country. He has headed a group called the Zen Mir Chorale, one of the leading groups in this country who are advocates of the Jewish experience. And then this piece by the Argentine composer Roberto Caamaño, Dilexi, quoniam, is a setting of Psalm 116, but it comes out of liberation theology of Latin America. So I titled this whole section “Global Expressions of Praise”, because it begins initially just to honor this great composer of the western Canon, but he’s already being multicultural. Then after we move from this northern European to this Israeli psalm setting to this text drawn from Arabic culture to the Latin American work, the section finally concludes with one of the great psalm settings by F. Melius Christiansen. This wonderful, great diversity of text and music creates a powerful section. It’s also a very difficult section. And we’ll find out this weekend how well it works!