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They’re singing once, praying twice

National Lutheran Choir marks 25th year

It was Martin Luther who famously said, “Whoever sings once prays twice.” His Reformation movement gained the reputation of “a singing church.” That was in contrast to typical worship in medieval Christianity, where “the experts” did the singing and “ordinary people” mostly listened.

In celebration of Martin Luther’s affirmation of singing the faith, the National Lutheran Choir (NLC), a Minneapolis-based choral group, has been holding forth for the past 25 years. The NLC’s founding director, the late Larry Fleming, wanted to give his ensemble a unique and recognizable sound. His successor, David Cherwien, has continued the tradition.

Cherwien told Metro Lutheran that, unlike many of the high-profile Twin Cities choral groups, the National Lutheran Choir is proud to be Lutheran and church-connected. “We are unabashed in our connection with the church,” he says, “which means we can overtly believe what we sing about. Our programs can be spiritual experiences, if the listener is open to that. We commit to singing music that is about God — and there is no shortage of meaningful sacred texts set to great music to sing.”

The pan-Lutheran National Lutheran Choir is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a strong performance schedule, including its anniversary celebration on April 16. Photo provided by the National Lutheran Choir

“Even in hard times people will support something that is meaningful to them. Given our mission as a spiritual organization, if we’re not connecting, the support will wane.”

With so many quality choral groups in Minnesota, Cherwien underscores the spiritual dimension of NLC. “It’s one thing for an audience to appreciate high quality artistic expression, and that can be enough. But it’s another to open the heart to the Spirit of God through what we offer. This choir gets that, and we ‘get to’ hold that up.”

Fleming wanted his choir to be more than a performance unit. He intended it to provide a worship experience for those who came to concerts, treating them less like an audience and more as a congregation. Cherwien affirms this. “We are like a high quality auditioned church choir,” he says. “We overtly connect ourselves with the church and the people of God and their mission. We do hymns. We do chants. We do programs that might look liturgical.”

Like Metro Lutheran, NLC is a nonprofit and has been buffeted by challenging economic times in recent years. Cherwien says the choir has endured the storms relatively well. He believes one reason for this to be the faithful cadre of supporters who will not let the choir go away by default. They support it because they see value in what the choir provides.

“Even in hard times people will support something that is meaningful to them. Given our mission as a spiritual organization, if we’re not connecting, the support will wane. We’ve found that we are connecting — and if we keep the quality of artistic expression up, keep our mission focused and high, I think the choir will continue to be solvent.”

The National Lutheran Choir has a loyal following, top-notch vocalists (who compete to get in), and an ambitious annual performance schedule.

Like Fleming before him, Cherwien can seem obsessive about quality. “I’ve said to the choir, ‘Whenever you think something was really, really, really good, and perhaps can’t get better, we need to hear the angel on our shoulder saying “Listen closer” to find how to improve.’ If we quit working on what can be improved, we’re in trouble.”

This choir is not in trouble. It has a loyal following, top-notch vocalists (who compete to get in), and an ambitious annual performance schedule. Next up will be a 25th year anniversary concert. Cherwien seems to have had a lot of fun putting the program together.

“[We’ll be singing music by] some of the earliest composers of the tradition, such as Josquin des Prez (Martin Luther’s favorite composer) and J.S. Bach; Midwest college composers such as F. Melius Christiansen and his sons; the premiere performance of a new composition; in addition to … the winning new-composition of a contest we conducted … for which we had submissions from all over the world. We’re singing the oldest to the newest that hasn’t been heard yet.”

The concert, set for April 16, won’t be a one-conductor affair. Cherwien will share the baton. He says, “We will be conducted by upper Midwest college conductors. These are the mentors of most of our singers!”

A choral tradition at 25

The National Lutheran Choir 25th anniversary year concert will be held at 7:00 p.m., Saturday, April 16, at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, 900 Stillwater Road, Mahtomedi, Minnesota.

Guest conductors from six Lutheran colleges — Anton Armstrong (St. Olaf College), Craig Arnold, Gregory Aune (Gustavus Adolphus College), René Clausen (Concordia College, Moorhead), Peter Hendrickson (Augsburg College), James Johnson (Augustana College), and David Mennicke (Concordia University, St. Paul) — each take their turn at the podium, leading the National Lutheran Choir in works specially chosen for the choir.

Ticket prices are adults, $20 ($25 beginning April 9); seniors, $15 ($20 beginning April 9); students, $10; and groups of 10 or more purchasing tickets together, $15. All tickets are general admission. Tickets ordered before April 11 will be sent in the mail.

Parking is available in the St. Andrew’s lot. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 612/722-2301.

NLC announces composer competition winner

Joshua Fishbein’s May the Words of My Mouth has been chosen as the winner of the National Lutheran Choir’s 25th Anniversary Choral Competition. Fishbein’s work was selected from a field of 80 entries from composers around the world who participated in the competition.

May the Words of My Mouth is a three-minute work scored for SAATBB, with text from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is sung in a mixture of Hebrew and English. The new composition will be performed by the 64-voiced National Lutheran Choir on May 21 and 22, 2011, in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota respectively. The concert program, Re-Member the Future, is the final offering of NLC’s celebratory 25th anniversary season and is designed to give audiences a taste of sacred choral music from its deepest roots to its newest branches. For more information about the concert or the contest, visit www.nlca.com.

Fishbein, 26, is a PhD student in music composition at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.

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