The St. Olaf Choir of Northfield, Minn., came to the Foellinger Great Hall on Feb. 11. This was the 15th concert and last stop in a winter tour that had started on Jan. 18 and would end with a homecoming concert on Feb. 16 in Northfield.
This renowned choir was founded in 1912 by F. Melius Christiansen, and its current director, Anton Armstrong, is now in his 30th year with the choir. Over the decades, and now centuries, this ensemble has built a reputation as one of the top college choirs in this country.
In a long concert, in which 21 selections in six languages were sung, the choir, under Armstrong’s vibrant direction, performed with excellent ensemble discipline, with assured command of many choral idioms and with a beautiful tone that made last notes of many selections uniquely memorable.
The concert began with a rousing performance of a setting of Psalm 122, “Laetatus Sum” (“For I rejoiced”) by Michael Haydn (1737-1806), and it was performed with a chamber group of fine instrumentalists.
In this Haydn piece, one could notice at once that the choir members swayed from side to side as they sang.
During intermission, some of my fellow audience members said that they found the swaying distracting, and others found it puzzling.
In the program booklet, conductor Armstrong is quoted as saying that “Members will occasionally sway back and forth during certain pieces, bringing a sense of movement to the ensemble.”
The concert was divided into four sections, and in the second section, “Songs of Adoration,” I particularly enjoyed the lullaby-like “Selig sind die reines Herzens sind” (“Blessed are the pure of heart”), by Woldemar Voullaire (1825-1902), with its lovely blend of voices.
Also, “Adoramus te, Christe” (“We adore you, O Christ”), by Matthew Peterson, ended with a beautiful effect of receding waves of sound.
The first half of the concert ended with the exciting singing of the single word “Alleluia,” composed by Jake Runestad,” with clapping and other visual effects.
The level of emotional involvement mounted in the third section, “Songs of Justice and Compassion.”
In Mari Esabel Valverde’s “When Thunder Comes,” the choir sang the praises by name of those who fought for civil rights.
In the last section, “Songs of Love and Hope,” I especially enjoyed the disciplined restraint of the singing of Joseph Flummerfelt’s arrangement of the Irish folk song “Danny Boy.”
This was a memorial tribute to the famous chorus master Flummerfelt, who died last year.
In the rendition of Robert Burn’s classic poem “O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose,” as set by René Clausen, the fine singing was enhanced by the affecting accompaniment of the father-son team of Charles Gray, violin, and Cameron Gray, cello.
At the end of Harry Burleigh’s arrangement of “My Lord, What a Morning,” the line “When de stars begin to fall” was sung with breathtaking effect.
The strongest applause of the evening came after a rousing solo from a choir member, when the spiritual “City Called Heaven,” arranged by Josephine Poelinitz, ended with the lines “Oh I heard of a city called heaven/ I’m trying to make it my home.”
The final selection, the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” arranged by Moses G. Hogan Jr., with its repeated lines such as “Will you praise Him, Oh yes!” was greeted with cheers, and in the speech that followed by Armstrong, he spoke of his student years at UIUC, and he expressed gratitude toward his mentors here.
The concert ended with the St. Olaf’s traditional encore, F. Melius Christiansen’s setting of “Beautiful Savior.”
And then the choir, after 24 days on the road, went home.