St. Olaf College | Music

In Memory of Sigrid Johnson (1952-2022)

Sigrid Johnson conducts during a past St. Olaf Christmas Festival.

Sigrid Jean Johnson was born on January 8, 1952, to Corliss and Irene Nelson in Bismarck, North Dakota. She died on March 11, 2022.

Sigrid was raised in a home filled with music. Her father was an untrained singer with a beautiful tenor voice. Her mother, a trained pianist who could also play hymns by ear, taught Sigrid and her two brothers basic music theory as children.

Sigrid began formal piano training with Belle Mehus at age four and gave her own solo piano recital at age five. She enjoyed playing concerts and private events in a trio with her brothers on violin and cello. Throughout junior and senior high school, she performed and accompanied in church, high school choir, orchestra, band, the community, and local college operas and musicals. Sigrid served a local church as organist and also played flute and bassoon.

After graduating from Bismarck High School in 1969, she was offered a full scholarship to Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where she sang under conductor Paul J. Christiansen. She completed her undergraduate degree in vocal performance at St. Cloud State University and received a master of music in vocal performance from the University of Michigan. She was an adjunct professor of voice at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis and Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

While at Concordia, she met the love of her life, Robert “BJ” Johnson. They had two children, Andrew and Peter. Music was important to Sigrid, but not her only focus. She was devoted to her family; they were at the center of her life.

In 1983, Sigrid accepted a position as artist-in-residence and a member of the voice faculty at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she conducted the Manitou Singers, the 100-voice first-year women’s chorus. She taught at St. Olaf for 32 years until her retirement in 2015.

Sigrid was a highly sought-after guest conductor and clinician. She was invited to all-state music festivals in over 30 states. Known particularly for her outstanding musical ear, she prepared symphonic choruses for Neeme Järvi, Sir Neville Marriner, David Zinman, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Gerard Schwarz, Edo de Waart, and Leonard Slatkin, among others. She served as conductor of the Dale Warland Symphonic Chorus, associate conductor of the Dale Warland Singers, guest conductor of the National Lutheran Choir, and Magnum Chorum, both of Minneapolis. She was also the associate conductor of VocalEssence, Minneapolis, where she worked closely with Founding Artistic Director Philip Brunelle.

Sigrid was a featured guest lecturer at the World Symposiums on Choral Music in Minneapolis in 2002; in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2008; and in Puerto Madryn, Argentina in 2011. She was a featured lecturer and clinician at the 2004 Australian National Choral Association Conference and also a member of the esteemed jury for the Béla Bartók International Choral Competition in Debrecen, Hungary in 2006.

In 2007, she received the F. Melius Christiansen Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota, for providing outstanding contributions and distinguished service to choral music in Minnesota.

For many years, she suffered from palindromic rheumatoid arthritis. She found the strength, the will, the power in the music that enabled her to conduct a choir with such grace and beauty that no one would have known the pain she was enduring. She was a model of vitality, courage, and faith.

Sigrid was a loving nurturer, caring, and selfless. She deeply respected her fellow colleagues, who were wonderful supporters and collaborators and a great center of joy in her life. Unrelenting in pursuit of excellence, she dug deep to bring about the beauty in each musical piece her choirs presented. Because she was a stickler for meticulous intonation and attention to the text, her singers always kept their eyes fixed on her. She was known for taking liberties and never conducted a piece of music exactly the same way twice.

She is remembered for having said, “God gave me two beautiful sons, and every year I’m blessed with 100 daughters” (referring to her particular fondness for the Manitou Singers). To her students, she bequeathed life skills that reach far beyond music: the power of preparation, pride in their work, deference and respect, and the importance of listening to each other. She inspired and imprinted these values on thousands of young singers. But above all else, she fervently believed that people — all people everywhere — mattered.

Sigrid loved going to their little cabin (“Lille Hutte”) on Lake Darling in Alexandria, Minnesota. She loved taking rides around the lake in their pontoon with Bob at the wheel. She loved coffee and often had a cup in her hand and others nearby. She was a fabulous host for gatherings at their home. She knew how to set a beautiful table. She always had a smile and a hug. People loved her. She will be deeply missed, but her legacy of loving relationships and beautiful music will last forever.

Sigrid is preceded in death by her parents; sister, Mary Corene; niece, Holly Nelson; and her beloved husband, Robert Clifford Johnson.

She is survived by her two sons, Andrew (Sarah), St. Paul, MN and Peter (Samy), Bloomington, MN; two grandsons, Soren and Halvor; brothers, Corliss (Donna), Smyrna, TN and Greg (Pam), Franklin, TN; nieces, Sarah (Damian), Franklin, TN and Serena (Adam), Brooklyn, NY;  nephew, Ben (Emily), St. Paul, MN; four grand-nieces, Georgia, Blythe, Tessa, and Maya; and grand-nephews, Henry and Ellis.

A Service of Thanksgiving for Sigrid’s life will be held on Saturday, March 19 at 3 p.m. at Boe Memorial Chapel, St. Olaf College. Doors will open to the public at 2:30 p.m. Due to the current COVID-19 campus safety standards, and for the safety of our entire community, all attendees must be vaccinated and masked. If you are not able to attend in person, the service will be streamed.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Sigrid and Robert “BJ” Johnson Endowed Fund, the Manitou Singers, the Steven M. Amundson Fund for Orchestra (all c/o St. Olaf College, 1520 St. Olaf Ave., Northfield, MN, 55057, Att’n: Development Office) or to VocalEssence (1900 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55403).