National Lutheran News

St. Olaf College marks a century of music making

The St. Olaf College Band, around AD 1900

The St. Olaf College Band, around AD 1900

Northfield, Minnesota school traces its choir’s beginnings to 1903.

Driving between Virginia and Georgia one Christmas Eve a half dozen years ago, I turned on the car radio hoping to find inspiring Christmas music. I was not disappointed.

After the caroling of angelic voices, strings and brass, an announcer explained, “This is a rebroadcast from Northfield, Minnesota, of the St. Olaf College Christmas Festival.”

Recognized from coast to coast, St. Olaf student musicians have been performing for decades in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. In 2003-04, the music department of the ELCA institution is celebrating the centennial of its 1903 founding by F. Melius Christiansen. As early as 1906, Christiansen brought the St. Olaf Band to Norway to perform before an audience that included King Haakon. With that visit, those instrumentalists became the first college music organization in America to tour abroad.

“We believe music is a calling, a divine gift, and we need to honor and share it,” says Dan Dressen, professor of music and department chair. “What makes our music program unique is the depth of curricular and performance opportunities, the academic excellence, breadth of instruction and the significant number of non-music majors.”

Eleven hundred of St. Olaf’s 3,000 students are involved in music — 300 music majors, 800 non-majors. Nine hundred St. Olaf students take weekly music lessons. Five hundred participate in the annual Christmas Festival concert. There are sixty-five music faculty members and twenty-three ensembles, including eight choirs, two bands and two orchestras.

“Our object is to provide music of hope, joy, compassion and love,” says Professor Anton Armstrong, conductor of the St. Olaf Choir and artistic director of the Christmas Festival. “We want to be an instrument to transform the world through the art of music, especially at a time like this.

“Our world is facing darkness, fear and doubt. Our choir offers comfort and faith in something that is, and has been, firm. Many who come to our concerts are lovers of choral music but not necessarily churchgoers. One such person told me, ‘This is the closest experience of God I’ve had in many a year, embodied by these young people in their performance.’”

This winter the St. Olaf Choir completed a concert tour through the Midwest and south, while the St. Olaf Band performed in Mexico.

Throughout this centennial year the music department is offering several concert series on campus, including a Nordic, an alumni and a faculty series.

“The capstone event will be our April 25 concert at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis,” Dressen says. “The St. Olaf Choir, Chapel Choir, Cantori and the St. Olaf Orchestra will perform the Brahms Requiem under the direction of Helmuth Rilling, Stuttgart, Germany, one of four prominent musicians receiving honorary doctorates from St. Olaf this year.”

Says Armstrong, “We’re not doing the Requiem only to remember the dead, but primarily to strengthen those who live and go on in the face of destruction and death. Rilling’s deep, quiet but powerful interpretations go to the heart of faith.”
Organist and kapellmeister Rilling is in his 35th year as founding artistic director of the Oregon Bach festival, where Armstrong has worked with him for seven summers.

On May 30, 2005, the combined St. Olaf Band, Choir and Orchestra will depart for a three-week concert tour of Norway, marking two centennials. Norway will celebrate 100 years of independence from Sweden and the musicians and their audiences will observe 100 years of friendship between St. Olaf College and Norway.

While touring, Prof. Steven Amundson, conductor of the St. Olaf Orchestra, feels that he really gets to know his students, “their interests, their families, and even their disappointments and frustrations.” Conversely, the closeness of touring “enables my students to know what motivates me. I’m no longer just the guy on the podium waving the stick and spewing animated musical exhortations.”

Arguably the most recognized name in St. Olaf’s musical heritage is founder F. Melius Christiansen. He established the St. Olaf Choir and St. Olaf Orchestra in 1912, leading them in the school’s first Christmas concert that December. Christiansen remained chair of the department until 1941. He composed or arranged more than 600 pieces of music. His son, Olaf, succeeded him as St. Olaf Choir director.

Keeping the music heritage alive is a St. Olaf hallmark. Professor Timothy Mahr, director of the St. Olaf Band since 1981, learned his craft while a student of conductor Miles (Mity) Johnson. “From Mity I discovered the beauty of the band sound. He showed us that an excellent ensemble will respond to the slightest opening of a hand or softening of a look in the eyes. He reaffirmed my sense of working hard to attain the best possible results and that the reward is in the effort made.”

The college’s Music Manager, Bob Johnson, says, “We can only live on our history and tradition for so long. Music is an active art. We’re always preparing for our next concert.”