In part two of my telephone interview with St. Olaf Choir director Anton Armstrong, we continued to discuss the program the choir will sing at Severance Hall on February 1.
Daniel Hathaway: The next section begins with Finzi, who is one of my favorite composers — but tell me about Ola Gjeilo.
Anton Armstrong: Ola Gjeilo is a Norwegian composer who has come to this country to do more advanced work on the east coast. He started coming to the forefront three or four years ago when Gunilla Luboff, Norman Luboff’s widow, who owned Walton Music (she’s Swedish) started publishing some of Ola’s music. My colleague Sigrid Johnson commissioned him to write a piece for our first year singers — the Manitou Singers — for Christmas two years ago. Then I stumbled across many of his compositions. He came to St. Olaf for a visit, and he has been featured in the Twin Cities. We’re always trying to find young contemporary voices, and also, as you mentioned early on, we still have very strong ties to Norway. And so it’s not just music of Grieg and Nysted and other who have been revered and highly lauded over the years, but it’s also new voices of Scandinavia and especially Norway that I’m always trying to include in some way, shape or form in our programs. And this whole section is more of the social consciousness section.
Finzi’s ‘All this night’ is a lovely fanfare. Simon Carrington and I were just together last weekend doing a master class in conducting in North Carolina and were talking about the program. I said, well we’re doing Finzi’s ‘All this night’ and he said, I don’t know that piece. And I said, Simon, Simon! — you need to know this piece! We went through a lot of pieces we have in common, but I said, I’ve taught Simon Carrington something today — I feel like I’m a smart man for once. That man has a lot more in his brain than I’ll ever have in mine.
After Finzi and Gjeilo we go to a series of three pieces, ‘This house of hope’, ‘Prayer of St. Francis’, and ‘For the sake of our children’, three contemporary voices, three voices that are personal friends of mine, former teacher in one case, but all of them speak of how choral music serves as a prophetic voice for the needs of humankind.
‘This house of peace’ was commissioned from Ralph M. Johnson by the Sacred Heart Medical Center in Springfield, OR, and I premiered the piece two years ago at the Oregon Bach Festival, where I’ve been on the conducting staff since 1998. The composer was my college roommate. He’s a church musician who maintains an active role as a composer — most of his output is choral, but he’s done instrumental and orchestral, and his works are being done by groups such as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. But he took the writings of the patients and the caregivers and those are the words that the two soloists in this piece sing. The chorus sings an adaptation he’s done of an old Gaelic house blessing. And so in many ways they’re like the Greek choruses of old time, commenting on the action, in this case, the texts sung by the soloists. They’re very profound texts. The soprano talks about a woman — one of the patients — who found a point of hospitality, of welcome, in this care center. She’d given birth to her child under a bridge in the Eugene-Springfield area and the words go on to say how she has never lived in a house like this, something that was so clean, where people don’t fight. He was in rehearsals three days ago and he shared the larger context with the kids, and I nearly lost it, and I’ve done this piece before, but I was reminded and the look that my students had on their faces! When they got up to sing the piece again it was incredible. It’s scored for strings and oboe — it’s a marvelous piece.
‘Prayer of St. Francis’ continues with this sense of what we do in service to others. Charles Foresburg is a professor emeritus of music, he actually was a teacher to both Abbie Betinis & Ralph Johnson, and he was a teacher to me. I asked for a piece because when I’m not using the winds in the Bach motet I needed something else for them to do. So he created a piece for choir, two oboes, bassoon and piano. It’s a powerful but very direct setting of that wonderful poem attributed to Francis of Assisi.
And then ‘For the sake of our children’ was written by Jeffrey Ames. Two years ago I was awarded a major teaching award by Baylor University and part of the agreement was to teach there for a semester. Jeffrey i’ve known for a number of years, but at that time he was teaching at Baylor. He’s now head of choral music at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. He had been commissioned by one of the professional choirs in Texas to write a piece for the big Texas Music Educators Conference. He was scoring it originally for cello and choir, and I said, no no no no! It won’t be heard. Score it for viola — it’ll be heard, and plus, I’ll take it on the road with me. It’s been performed a lot, but this is the first time with the St. Olaf Choir. But the thing that’s most poignant to me about this text is that in 2007, Jeffrey and his wife were expecting their second child. One day he was wrestling with the text and he came into the office and said, I had this one text but this other text is just “at” me. He said, Kimberly and I were talking last night, we both looked at our little one that we have already and then we wondered, what kind of world are we bringing this next child into? A world with violence and hate and war and children who live in despair? What kind of world? And he tried to address this. He’s a very promising young, African American composer in his late 30’s who has a very wide palette in his writing. He’s emerging, I think, as one of the younger generation of writers of the African American spiritual and gospel song, but this is another, different voice he has in this piece. It’s powerful. I have done this piece with honors choirs — it’s a more accessible piece than some of the other music I’m doing — I remember doing it last year for the Florida All-state choir and music educators. When we finished with this piece, there was absolute silence. This was in the middle of the concert. Then they jumped to their feet.
What I keep saying to my students is — part of the mission of St. Olaf College is not just giving students a rigorous academic education and everything else that comes with that, but it’s developing and nurturing young people for lives of worth and service. And I’m trying to live the mission of the college out in this program. It’s not just about doing the great works of the western canon and new works, and works that will entertain, but works that will touch the hearts and souls of the people who come. Olaf Christiansen, the second conductor, said when he was asked, “why do you work for excellence, is it to convert people?” He said, “No. I wouldn’t ever be so bold as to say that we had that power. But people who come and hear this concert, if we work hard so that all the distractions of the human mind and ear can be eliminated, then I think something more powerful does work through us”. For him it was a creator God. It could be other things — I’m not trying to say what it is. But something more powerful works, and people leave different. And if they go home and they’re kinder in their families, they approach their work with greater joy and focus, and their lives have greater meaning and purpose, then what we’ve done is worthy and noble.
DH: That’s very inspiring. Let me just ask you one more little question about the program. I’m one of those people who would think that trying to compose a setting of ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ after Elizabeth Poston’s would be impossible.
AA: (laughing) You’re not the only one, my friend! This young man, Stanford Scriven, who’s a junior in the choir right now, was in the high school program at the Oregon Bach Festival I started at the request of Helmuth Rilling in 1998. Stanford was in that program for at least two summers. He was a very promising kid — I have maybe seven or eight kids in the choir right now out of that program — it’s been a conduit to bring some very talented kids to St. Olaf. I knew he had something special. As a sophomore already he had won the state music educators’ prize for student composition and then last spring he wrote a piece that one of my colleagues did with a semi-pro group he conducts in The Cities. And it was at that concert that Stanford first heard the Poston setting. Now I grew up singing in the American Boychoir so I’ve sung that piece since I was a child, hearing it on King’s College and whatever, so I’m always once in while sort of stymied when this younger generation doesn’t know these great works. But he heard that, and while he liked the music, it was the text that was just riveting to him. He wrestled with this and at the end of the summer he sent me a note and said, I have a piece I’d like you to look at, and if it’s possible, could we at least sing it through in choir? When there’s time, with promising composers, I try to do their music — I had a young woman whose music we recorded about eight months earlier which won her a prize that took her to the Paris Conservatory last summer. So he was applying for a national prize from the American Choral Directors’ Association.
The end result — he wrote this piece and I said, Stanford, this is wedded to an incredible tune that most people know. He said I know, but I think this has merit. I played it on the piano and I thought, my goodness this man has something here. But I thought sure, it feels fine and you like the kid so you want to hear something nice. I took it and we read it with the choir and it was breathtaking. He was asked to submit it and he did. I was over in Taiwan conducting a professional group in the middle of October, and I got an email — he had heard that he had not won the prize, and I could hear the lament and the sadness in the tone of the email. I wrote him back and said, “kiddo, do I have a deal for you!” Had he won the competition it would have been fun to have that next to his name, but the piece could not have been performed before March and would have had one performance for maybe, if he was lucky, 1,000-1,200 people. Well, it’s already been heard live by 12,000 people who attended the St. Olaf Christmas Program, by hundreds of thousands more who heard the American Public Radio broadcast of that program throughout the country, and now it’s about to be published by Earth Songs, for which I’m one of the music editors, and between 20,000 and 25,000 people will hear it on this tour alone. So this young man has already had one piece published by Santa Barbara Music Press, now this piece, and there are many more to come out of him. He’s a real promising light in the world of music composition for choral music and I think for much more beyond.
DH: My next to last question is — I’d love to get Stephen Cleobury of King’s College, Cambridge and you on a conference call to ask you, who have two of the most prestigious Christmas festivals in the world, when you start planning for the next year?
AA: Next week. Monday! Matter of fact, right before we started this phone call, I had just finished an email to colleagues saying we have to start. The planning for this program is not just for 2010, we’re also looking at 2012 when we celebrate the 100th anniversary not only of the Choir but also of the Christmas Festival. We find ourselves broaching ideas and asking what do we want to bring back from the past to celebrate the legacy — but it’s not just looking at the past, it’s what’s to come forward. I’m already commissioning one if not two composers to write some new music for the choir, and we’ll be talking about whether we want a major new commission for orchestra and chorus for the mass choir. Those are some of the things we’re looking at right now. But we live with this program for about 11 1/2 months. I am artistic director of the project, but I’m just the first among equals. We plan this with five conductors, a visual designer who has been with us now over fifteen years, and the college pastor, who has been here nearly thirty years.
We don’t start with the music — we start with a theme. What do we want to address — what do people need to hear from this program.? There have been times — incredibly so — when we have been greatly prophetic in looking ahead. Last year the theme was based on the irish ‘Canticle of the Turning’. We knew whatever happened to that election in 2008, there would be change. I quite frankly thought it would be Mrs. Clinton we were looking at. Certainly by the time we got to December and it was president-elect Obama — that was a major change. You know, my first year, the theme was ‘Arise and set the captives free’, and we started planning that in the early part of 1990. Little did we realize we’d be entering on the heels of the Persian Gulf War. Over the years it’s really been interesting. We try to connect this concert, this worship experience in song with what the needs of the people seem to be. People who come to this are not always religious people. They come at a time of high stress in their lives, a season where people are chaotic beyond belief, and when they come in for the 90 minutes or so of that program, how can we feed them aesthetically, spiritually, to give them hope, to give them strength to face not just the season, but at a time when everybody’s supposed to be filled with happiness and light and joy, there’s a lot of brokenness, and there’s a lot of hardship going on. And every year we ask, how can we do that and not be a downer, but be realistic but offer music and let the music speak for itself?
There’s very little narration, spoken word. There’s a reading of either the Christmas gospel from Luke or maybe John 1, there may be two or three short, narrative readings that weave a couple of things together, but not like Lessons and Carols in that way. We really do try to let the music speak for itself. We have the incredible opportunity also to have the St. Olaf Orchestra, which is an undergraduate ensemble beyond compare — it ranks up with some of the finest conservatory orchestras, so we can do excerpts from some of the great choral and orchestral masterworks. And I have an incredible group of colleagues, many of whom are composers or arrangers in their own right, so I can turn to colleagues and say, I need a piece. And they all have students to whom I can say, I need a piece. We make no apologies for it being a religious program, but we try to be very much ecumenical, knowing that 100,000 people will hear this on radio and every three or four years many more will see it through the television productions we’ve done over the years with PBS.
I do know that for people who are involved especially in ministries in churches — for so many of them it’s not ‘O Holy Night’ it’s ‘O Hell Night’ sometimes — how many of them have thanked us for those radio and television broadcasts that really serve for them as their time in worship, their time of reflection in a very chaotic season. And I’m running into people now — I was on the plane about a year and a half ago sitting with a man and all of a sudden he said “I just figured out who you are. You’re the guy from that Christmas program my wife makes me watch”. Well you and I mostly grew up watching Perry Como and Andy Williams and Bing Crosby at Christmas. This has reached out beyond being just for religious people or choral people. This has become for a lot of people the Christmas thing that families watch. So I know that we reach out to them in that way, and these tours allow us to bring a wider view of the mission of the college and the Choir as we will to the great audience in Cleveland.
DH: One last, quick question. We listen to Minnesota Public Radio over the Internet and are shocked by the temperatures in Minnesota.
AA: You guys are not exactly the warmest being on the lake there!
DH: No, we’re not, but we’re nothing like Duluth at 30 below zero! How does a guy with Caribbean genes deal with winter?
AA: My students say that my ‘mene’ (laughs), my demeanor definitely gets a little cloudier at the beginning of November. The best tour ever for me was in 1997 when we took the Choir for a month’s study tour to New Zealand and Australia. The day we left Minnesota I remember running between the buildings because it was minus 30 degrees. I handed my secretary my winter coat and said, make sure that’s on the bus when we get back here in a month. So we got on the bus, went to the airport and 15-16 hours later woke up in Auckland. When we walked off the plane it was 78 degrees. We went sailing, kept the kids up all day because we had a concert the next day and we wanted them to sleep at night. It was the best month of my life! And the kids said, Dr. Armstrong, we’ve never seen you smile like this. I said, “my DNA says it’s home! It’s in the climate where it belongs!” You know, in the dry cold, I’ve learned to layer up. When my moustache freezes up I know it’s thirty below zero. You just cover up and — there’s a power in what Garrison (Keillor) says: this type of climate just makes you hardier and sturdier.
Dr. Anton Armstrong conducts the St. Olaf Choir in concert at Cleveland’s Severance Hall on Monday, February 1 at 7:30 pm.
The program: Handel’s With the Voice of Praise (Chandos Anthem 6), Tallis’ If ye love me, J.S. Bach’s Motet Fürchte dich nicht, Schumann’s Talismane, Louis Lewandowski’s Enosh, Abbie Betinis’ Bar Xizam, Roberto Caamaño’s Dilexi, quoniam exaudiet Dominus, F. Melius Christiansen’s Praise to the Lord, (intermission) Finzi’s All this Night, Ola Gjeilo’s Ubi Caritas, Charles Forsberg’s Prayer of St. Francis, Ralph M. Johnson’s This House of Peace, Jeffrey L. Ames’ For the Sake of Our Children, Stanford E. Scriven’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree and spirituals arranged by Mark Butler & Moses Hogan
Tickets: $30-$50 (boxes), $20 student rush tickets. Call 216.231.1111. The concert will be broadcast live over WCLV, 104.9 FM.