Saturday, January 23, 2016

Anton Armstrong and the St. Olaf Choir: Unity, hope, and love

St. Olaf Choir in Concert
courtesy of St. Olaf Choir
On Saturday, January 30th, at 7:00pm, the St. Olaf Choir will perform as a part of the Abendmusik season at First Plymouth Church (2000 D Street). The choir performed in Lincoln in 2011, and whether you were in the audience then or not, now is a not-to-be-missed chance to be transformed by a message of hope and love.

In an exclusive interview with LincolnCMN, Conductor Anton Armstrong explained that the choir’s purpose is “not to entertain.” Instead, “if we have done our job properly, the listener will feel transformed. If the listener is entertained, that is simply a wonderful byproduct.” In selecting the repertoire and rehearsing the choir, Armstrong has spent time on the meaning of the texts “not just on the music.”

What does this mean? Certainly, the St. Olaf Choir excels in their choral sound and musicality. They are “amateurs,” Armstrong says, but only in the best sense of the word which comes from the Latin word “amat, to love.” While the choir sings at a high professional level, it is unlike “professionals [who] often forget the love of the art. This group will not disappoint.”

Having evolved over 104 years, the choir is, in a way, “a microcosm of the college.” St. Olaf College is, as described by Armstrong, “a traditional, liberal arts college, but with a global perspective and grounded in faith; an ecumenical community of faith.”

Anton Armstrong conducting
courtesy of St. Olaf Choir
Armstrong, only the fourth conductor in the history of the choir, sang as a student in the choir during it’s 75th anniversary year. Under his predecessor, Kenneth Jennings, Armstrong was given “insight into the history of the choir.” While Jennings was also “opening the sound” including music more acceptable to modern aesthetics of the late 20th century. Jennings expanded to choir’s repertoire to include not only sacred, but also secular works.

“Jennings opened the door, and I kicked it wide open.” 

Besides including some instruments instead of being exclusively a cappella, Armstrong has broadened the styles of choral music that the choir sings. As the choir has traveled around the world, they have expanded their repertoire to include the music of the places they travel. They’ve also included more music that is a part of America, Armstrong shared, “I love styles of Gospel and African work songs and freedom. No other group was doing that kind of thing when we started.”

In Lincoln, the audience will also hear a piece by a current student in the choir, “encouraging modern composers and works,” and step back in time to a lesser known work by Bach. “It’s a smorgasbord,” Armstrong commented. The evening will include a work by Jennings, Armstrong’s predecessor who passed away this past year; Ginastera, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of his birth; a choral work by Kurt Weill, “he’s not usually associated with choral works, but this is a wonderful piece, a Shabbat prayer.”

Most importantly, Armstrong’s wish for the Lincoln audience is the same as what he wishes for the students in the choir, that “the music will feed their souls.”  

It’s recognizing the diversity of the students, or of the audience, “we think of diversity of ethnicity and race (which there is in this choir), but in the years I’ve been here, I’ve realized that diversity goes beyond that. It is socio-economic, political, religious, spiritual—even if they look the same, they are not the same.” But in this musical experience, Armstrong wants singers and listeners alike to “leave transformed as human beings. To be opened up to a message of hope, of love, and to feel a little better about the world that they live in. In a time of division and hate, find unity and love.” 

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