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April 26, 2005

Noble, 82, says it's still about music, students

DesMoines Register (IA):

Weston Noble laughed softly when he told the story, understanding it might seem absurd to a first-time visitor to his office. He was talking about a day in 1945, when he drove his tank into Berlin as the war ended. The American soldiers were finding souvenirs to bring home - guns, swords and Nazi flags, that sort of thing. "I brought back this," he said, pointing to a piece of marble on the shelf in his Luther College office. "It's an interesting souvenir." Noble came away with German Field Marshal Hermann Goering' s marble bust of Ludwig van Beethoven. Not surprising, because when you get to know this remarkable man, you realize it's always been about the music.

Born on a farm near Riceville, he was educated in a one-room school, then earned a Luther bachelor's degree, then a master's from University of Michigan, then served as a tank commander in World War II before becoming possibly the best-known and most-respected choir director in American higher education. Now, unimaginably, the 82-year-old Noble is retiring. It's unimaginable, because after 57 years, it's almost impossible to imagine Luther College without him.

Noble began high school at the age of 12 and was a Luther freshman at 16. He was at LuVerne High School a couple of years, teaching American literature, economics, sociology and, of course, music. Luther called in 1948, asking if he'd direct the choral and band programs until the college could find a permanent director. He never left. Not that he didn't have plenty of chances. Bigger and arguably more prestigious colleges and universities kept asking, and Noble politely turned them down. Still, the phone kept ringing. Maybe it was his "no" to job offers from the Juilliard School of Music and Yale that convinced the music world he truly was devoted to Luther.

So why pass up the Ivy League to spend a life at a small college in northeast Iowa? "It's the students," he told me in 1998, when the college was celebrating his 50th anniversary there. "The students are what keep me here." Interesting, because he's the reason so many music students choose Luther. It's impossible to know how many young Iowans traveled to the Decorah campus to participate in the Dorian Music Festivals over the years. Those events bring the best high school music students from eight states to Decorah for a weekend each January.

Noble originated and ran the festivals and uses the opportunity to recruit the best of the best to Luther. This is because he makes them understand, in just a couple of days, how good they truly can become. Maybe that's the most important thing an educator can give to a student. Noble's own words about music make you understand what has drawn so many young people to Luther over the decades. "There is an element of mystery," he said. "A part of the music touches our spirit and the spirit inspires the soul and the soul rules the body." When Luther students are committed to vocal music, they join one of the seven choirs on campus. The ultimate is to be chosen as one of 72 members of the Nordic Choir he directs. You've missed something special if you've never seen a Nordic Choir performance.

There's an almost military-like precision as they enter the hall for a performance. Each student is in step, perfectly spaced, absolutely silent. But that precision comes with a beautiful elegance and grace. The music they make is magnificent, almost holy in its purity. You'd think a former tank commander would have a certain toughness, a snarl that might intimidate young singers into the perfection he demands. No, Noble said. He couldn't think of a single time he'd been tough or angry. It simply wasn't necessary.

"The power of the music takes over," he told me. "I don't have to stand there and demand anything of (the students). They demand it of themselves. I was thinking . . . that the biggest danger was making sure all this didn't become routine for me. That wouldn't be fair to anybody. Then I saw that spark again in the singers and that totally obliterated the possibility." There aren't many college professors, anywhere, who have had such an impact on their profession. According to Luther College, Noble has been guest conductor at 900 music festivals around the world and in all 50 states. In 1989, the National Federation of State High School Associations began giving an award to the person it considered to be the top music educator in the country. Noble was its first recipient.

The Nordic Choir has performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, in Norway, England, Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Baltics, Mexico and the Caribbean. "I don't have the words in my vocabulary to describe what Weston has meant to this institution," said Luther President Richard Torgerson. "I just know I've been told by people who have traveled the world the response they get when they say they're from Iowa. People nod. They say Luther College and they ask you if you know Weston Noble." We referred earlier to Weston's retirement. That's mostly true. It means he's giving up his full-time job as director of the Nordic Choir, but he'll still be around as a college ambassador of sorts and, of course, recruiting the top students to enroll at Luther. And always it will be about the music.

Posted by acapnews at April 26, 2005 12:22 AM