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February 1, 2006

St. Olaf choir 'shines and transforms'

Des Moines Register (IA):

There seems to be no limit to the musicianship and the ardent expressiveness of the 75-voice St. Olaf Choir, nor to the canniness and the committed expertise of director Anton Armstrong, who has been at the choir's helm for more than 15 years. The choir began its current winter tour of the Midwest Saturday evening with a generous, 2 1/2-hour concert at First Christian Church in Des Moines.

What Saturday's near-capacity crowd witnessed was a thoughtfully designed program performed with stunning sensitivity to a wide variety of musical styles and emotions. Choral blend - unanimity of tone color, attack and release - was there, of course, but so was clarity of texture - constant, loving attention to the ebb and flow of individual phrases - and all in the service, to quote Armstrong's goal, of letting the music "shine through and transform the lives of those who make and hear it."

The musical/spiritual journey started with a thrill to the ear as a brass quartet and the church's handsome Holtkamp organ, played by guest organist John Ferguson, professor of organ and church music at St. Olaf College, joined the choir in Jacobus Gallus's antiphon "This Is the Day."

In Henry Purcell's "Hear My Prayer" (a work heard here just a week ago performed by the Nordic Choir), the St. Olaf singers seemed to use their whole beings to underline the intense dissonances that express the emotion of the text. Heinrich Schuetz's big motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" ("Sing to the Lord a New Song") was the centerpiece of the set, as the choir's ample sonority rose to fill the sanctuary's fine acoustical space.

The Gloria from Daniel Pinkham's 20th-century, neo-Renaissance Christmas Cantata was a natural sequel to the concert's pre-Classical beginning, and it served as a rhythmically brassy relish before Mozart's exquisite late motet "Ave verum corpus."

Horatio Parker's gorgeous, high Victorian setting of the late-Latin Ambrosian hymn "Light's Glittering Morn" was just as effective as the 250th-anniversary Mozart, ardently and movingly sung by the choir despite the elaborate windiness of its poetry. The concert's first music of our century was a very effective setting of Psalm 126 by Abbie Betinis, an already highly accomplished composer (and St. Olaf graduate).

The wealth of magnificent music-making continued, including a section from Kenneth Jennings stirring "The Lord Is the Everlasting God," a pair of movements from F. Melius Christiansen's handsome and lyrical cantata "Celestial Spring," and Z. Randall Stroope's "The Conversion of Saul" in a performance less furious than the Nordic Choir's last week but every bit as effective.

This section ended with three separate works (by David N. Childs, Robert A. Harris and Frank Martin) that Armstrong has set side by side to create "In Remembrance: A Musical Lament," a response in particular to the natural and human-made disasters of recent years. Here the concert seemed consciously to intensify from thrilling the ear to thrilling the heart as well, and this feeling grew through the evening.

The concert's final section again featured a diversity of music, each performed with the utmost stylistic sympathy. "The Darkling Thrush," commissioned for the choir from St. Olaf graduate Timothy C. Takach, was pretty but smart; Jennings' setting of "Norge, Mitt Norge" ("Norway, My Norway") was proud and elegant; and three gospel-influenced songs were absolutely irresistible: the Louis Armstrong standard "What a Wonderful World," Josephine Poelinitz's arrangement of the spiritual "City Called Heaven" and Jeffery L. Ames' amazing gospel-shout "Let Everything That Hath Breath." It was a concert to remember and enjoy for a very long time.

Posted by acapnews at February 1, 2006 12:23 AM