The joy of the journey
Twenty-five years of National Lutheran Choir recordings
An empty room and a microphone. In 1986, these were the National Lutheran Choir’s first humble audience. Before ever receiving glowing reviews or thunderous applause, before touring the thousands of miles, this fledgling group of friends gathered to make its first recording.
Of course, since that time, the choir has embarked on 25 years of concerts in front of audiences stretching from Arizona to Florida to California. The group has grown to include more than 60 singers from 200 miles around, and has performed an enormous repertoire of styles and composers, receiving many awards. It has seen the loss of its founder Larry Fleming, and the beginning of a new era with current director David Cherwien. It has continued and expanded its mission to “strengthen, renew, and preserve the Lutheran heritage of choral music through the highest standards of performance and literature.”
And amid all this growth and change, the National Lutheran Choir has given listeners a feast of 25 recordings. Four I’ve listened to with great attention are Foundation (1986-2007), From Light to Light (2009), Hymns We Love to Sing, Vol. II (2010), and the most recent retrospective compilation, We Sing With Joy (2011). Taken together, these recordings tell a story about the group and its abiding heart.
The four recordings have much in common: robust tone, dynamic range, blend, stylistic variety. These are the hallmarks of a good choral group. But the recordings are also a narrative of deeply felt faith and musical growth. Jonathan Flak, tenor with the choir for 23 seasons, says, “making music with these people, who have become extended family, is a grand adventure.” One can hear that “grand adventure” in the scope of the music the group has recorded over the years.
Foundation, a compilation of old and unreleased recordings, spans the group’s development from its beginnings, in 1986, to 2007, and includes a period of great change for the choir, standing as a testament to the group’s enduring core. That core has withstood a lot. Throughout the entirety of Foundation, the group sings with passion, exploring the complexities and depth of Lutheran faith present in all this music. That was what Larry Fleming established the group for.
But it is a risky thing for a founder to hand over his creation of 13 years to someone else; it’s even riskier for a group to undergo two years of interim leadership before selecting a new permanent director. Many groups have fractured or disbanded in the midst of such change. When Fleming retired in 1999, the National Lutheran Choir was led by a series of stellar directors: Sigrid Johnson, Karle Erickson, Paul Brandvik, René Clausen, Martin Neary, Kenneth Hodgson, Paul Lohman, Mark Aamot, and Michael Culloton. Yet instead of wandering from its purpose, the National Lutheran Choir held firm and grew.
A progression of hymnody
In Foundation, one hears this growth and purpose. “Sing and Ponder,” arranged by Fleming, is from those very first recordings in 1986. The sound is thin, and entrances more ragged than those in later pieces. Nevertheless, the choir’s signature emotional warmth is there from the start. By the time the group sings “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” in Fleming’s final season, the choir is executing the piece’s exposed tightrope-walking unisons with precision, warmth, and sophistication.
Thirty-six of the pieces in the four-disc set are written or arranged by Fleming. In many ways, Foundation rings like a letter of gratitude from the choir to its founder, and as a promise to continue the work he started.
Continue they do. In From Light to Light, recorded with current director David Cherwien, tenderness abounds. The disc begins with Brahms’ “Let Nothing Ever Grieve Thee,” whose lush cello and viola lines twine in and around the choir melodies. In “Sicut Cervus,” the choir manages a lovely blended straight tone not easily accomplished by 60+ voices. And the large group, elsewhere a powerhouse of sound, here delivers a pianissimo so intimate, you hold your breath to listen.
The selections for this disc are exquisite. Many of the pieces — those by Eric Whitacre, Rihards Dubra, J. Aaron McDermid, and Alfred Schnittke — involve quiet, close harmonies based on half-steps, moving the listener to a profound and more difficult sense of the sacred. The ambitious music makes From Light to Light my favorite of these four discs. The pieces are not easy for singers, but the choir renders them as delicately as a stained-glass window.
By contrast, Hymns We Love to Sing, Vol. II offers listeners a rousing anthology of beloved sacred songs. Rest assured, these are the favorites you can belt out in your living room, and the choir has not tampered with familiar and venerated presentations of songs such as “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Holy God We Praise Your Name.” These selections and several gospel tunes display the choir’s immense power and are filled with rich SATB and soaring descants. Surprisingly clean for being recorded in concert, the tracks also have the energy of live performance.
‘The best of all that has come before’
But enjoyable as old favorites are, here’s the real treat of the disc: Cherwien at the mighty Reuter organ. By turns meditative and playful, Cherwien’s improvisations give listeners fresh colors with which to hear the old standards. Between the second and third verses of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” Cherwien unleashes the organ in an anguished rumination of the hymn’s poignant 17th century text; when the choir returns, we listen to the familiar words that much more clearly.
“A word about our director,” says tenor Flak. “He is a remarkable musician who leads with sensitivity, humor, and grace.”
The choir’s 25th anniversary collection We Sing with Joy, compiled by current and alumni singers, celebrates the best of all that has come before. Especially pleasurable is the arc of the collection that, loosely chronological, also leads listeners on a tour through the choir’s abilities, range of tones, and eclectic repertoire.
Disc one of the set is conducted entirely by Larry Fleming and begins quietly and unaccompanied. Gradually, we are introduced to the colors of the group, in pieces that feature section-by-section unisons. The music moves from chant to chorale to more difficult harmonies and brighter sounds and a few richer-toned spirituals.
Disc two demonstrates the choir’s fuller sound, beginning with music by Schumann, Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff. The latter two-thirds of the disc are conducted by David Cherwien and continue to expand the variety of repertoire, including works by contemporary composers and arrangements by both Fleming and Cherwien.
Also worth mention are the personal notes included in the liner text about many of the pieces. In them, singers recall comments by their directors, or reminisce about emotional moments connected with the music. These small, affectionate additions make the set remarkably moving, and they mirror the warmth of the group’s music.
“There’s a very strong social aspect to this group that is expressed at weddings, births, funerals — life,” says Flak. “We support each other through it all.”
You can hear it. These aren’t just words, or notes. A journey through the National Lutheran Choir’s recordings is a journey through the group’s history, but more significantly, these discs document the strength of the National Lutheran Choir’s heart. Every note of these past 25 years resounds with the conviction that faith can be intensely felt through music of all kinds, and that to lift up your voice with skill and joy is a worship unsurpassed.
Anna George Meek teaches creative writing and is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.
Tags: Alfred Schnittke, Anna George Meek, Brahms, David Cherwien, Eric Whitacre, Foundation, From Light to Light, Hymns We Love to Sing Vol. II, J. Aaron McDermid, Jonathan Flak, Karle Erickson, Kenneth Hodgson, Larry Fleming, Mark Aamot, Martin Neary, Mendelssohn, Michael Culloton, National Lutheran Choir, NLC, Paul Brandvik, Paul Lohman, Rachmaninoff, René Clausen, Rihards Dubra, Schumann, Sigrid Johnson, Wagner, We Sing With Joy