The program included several pieces that will be featured in the upcoming Christmas Festival, as well as an adaptation of Robert Frost's poem "The Pasture" by Z. Randall Stroope and a spiritual piece by André J. Thomas.
For St. Olaf students, the event is generally met with a good measure of annoyance. The music directors acknowledge that the loss of a Sunday morning and afternoon can be a serious stress for students busy with class and other organizations.
However, they make a point of admonishing students to recognize the gift they give to the people at the concert. John Ferguson, professor of organ music and Director of the St. Olaf Cantorei, recalled the first time he heard the Oberlin choir perform:
"I discovered there was much more to this choir thing than I ever imagined," Ferguson said. "I'm sure that there were many today who made that same discovery."
Still, many grumble at the event. Cantorei sang for the worship service Sunday morning and, as a result, we were spared the massive rush that hit the Stav Hall during the lunch break that broke up the rehearsal for the event. The other four choirs and the assembled visitors were forced into the sort of line that leaves the Caf workers reeling and those in need of food anxious and angry.
Dr. Anton Armstrong conducted the massed choirs, as well as leading much of the rehearsal. Sitting back in the upper tiers of the bleachers, I found much of his words wasted as far as the baritones were concerned. Skoglund has simply dreadful acoustics, and the choirs got the worst of the deal, as all of the speakers were directed downward and outward to the audience.
At an ordinary event, this might not be such a loss, but at an event where the choirs actually dwarf the audience by a decent margin, it provided a substantial barrier to the performance.
Fortunately, the choirs carried better than the Armstrong's voice. The three high school choirs sang well and even managed to pierce through the space to the back of the audience some of the time.
The Manitou Singers managed a very strong job of it. I was lucky enough to hear them sing Moses Hogan's "Music Down in my Soul" in Sunday chapel a few weeks ago and found the gulf between Boe Chapel and Skoglund striking. Not to say that they performed badly, but Boe Chapel just has a warmth to it that Skoglund can't even come close to.
By the same token, I've sat in the back of Boe a few times, and can't help feeling that Skoglund is a little friendlier to poor diction than the renovated Boe's cavernous echoes.
The St. Olaf Choir, as always, sang magnificently. I would have liked a little more shape to the Mendelssohn. I tend to listen to Mendelssohn (or sing him for that matter) and feel bored. I don't think Mendelssohn is boring, but he retraces his steps a lot, and without some very intentional shaping by director and choir, his music tends to dissolve into chords. When they went into Moses Hogan's "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord," they were simply phenomenal.
But again I find myself thinking: if only our guests had heard it in Boe.