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January 30, 2005

St. Olaf conductor's cold start led to warm ties

Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Anton Armstrong, ebullient conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, has grown accus tomed to the harsh winter weather in Northfield, Minn. But the first time he visited St. Olaf College 30 years ago, he experienced an icy blast of culture shock. Then a black teen who was born of Caribbean parents in New York City and raised on Long Island, he was touring Lutheran colleges in search of a strong undergraduate program in choral music. "I flew to Minneapolis with my brother," he said by phone from his home in Northfield. "It was 8 degrees in February. There was fresh-fallen snow. I had never seen hoarfrost. It was spectacular, it was so blinding and bright." Driving 35 miles through the countryside, Armstrong was sure his brother had gotten lost. "But then I saw the college on a hill," he said. "Everything was white: the snow, the buildings, the people, the food in the cafeteria. But the people were so kind, so warm."

Armstrong already knew about the college's lack of cultural diversity. At a Lutheran college fair, he had asked the admissions director how many people of color he would see at St. Olaf. "Not too many," the director said. "But we are good people. We don't look at the outer person. We look at the heart, soul and mind." A couple of years earlier, Armstrong had been introduced to the St. Olaf Choir, which stops in Northeast Ohio Monday night for a concert at Severance Hall. "I was going with friends to hear a rock concert by the Moody Blues at Madison Square Garden," Armstrong said. "But my pastor had bought tickets to the choir concert at Avery Fisher Hall, and my mother said, 'You will go to the choir concert, and you will have a right attitude.' "

Armstrong was aware that the St. Olaf Choir was renowned for the a cappella tradition established by F. Melius Christiansen, the Norwegian immigrant who founded the ensemble in 1912, and he was expecting to see Olaf Christiansen, the tall, silver-haired authority figure who had succeeded his father in 1943. But the conductor who walked onstage was small, stoop-shouldered and dark-haired. And the first piece, a Bach motet, was sung with the accompaniment of a portative organ. The conductor, Kenneth Jennings, had taken over the choir in 1968 and instituted a more historically informed performance style. During Armstrong's student days at St. Olaf, Jennings became his mentor and role model. In 1990, Armstrong was named Jennings' successor. At age 33, he was the choir's youngest conductor and its first black leader.

This weekend, Armstrong and the 75-voice ensemble embark on a 16-city American tour that includes performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. "We have three people of color in the choir," Armstrong said. "The Christiansens never had a black person. Ken [Jennings] had seven over 22 years. "We are struggling to recruit. But it's hard when it's minus 5 degrees here."

Because he could not find such basics as black hair products or Ebony magazine at St. Olaf when he was a student, Armstrong is pleased that the college now employs a dean of community life and diversity and attracts minorities to its international programs. Despite the scarcity of black faces in the choir, Armstrong has not hesitated to add African-American music to its repertoire. The choir has recorded an album of spirituals arranged by William Dawson, and it has performed a gospel Mass in such an idiomatic style that a black audience member in Chattanooga, Tenn., said, "Child, I thought I was back home in church."

This season's tour program consists of sacred and secular music sung in Latin, German, Norwegian, Spanish and English. Every piece on the program relates either to Armstrong's background or to the choir's history. Works by Norwegian composers Edvard Grieg, Knut Nystedt and F. Melius Christiansen honor the choir's heritage and presage its three-week tour to Norway in June. A group of hymns and spiritual songs includes arrangements by Robert Scholz, the St. Olaf Chapel Choir conductor who was Armstrong's voice teacher, and John Ferguson, the St. Olaf organist who arranged "Jesus Loves Me" for Armstrong's family after his father died. The concert also features music by Bach, Ives and Gretchaninoff, and it ends with the choir's signature, F. Melius Christiansen's thrilling arrangement of "Beautiful Saviour." To Armstrong, the hymn's last line, "Glory and honor / praise, adoration / Now and forever more be thine," expresses the motivation for each performance. "It's why we've done everything," he said. "It's not just entertainment. We do it for excellence. We become a vessel for faith, hope and love. "Not every kid in the choir is a deep believer. Some are wrestling and fighting with God. This music is a healing balm.

Posted by acapnews at January 30, 2005 6:48 PM