A New Era of Conductors
In the fall of 2022, Chung Park became the first new conductor of the St. Olaf Orchestra in 40 years.
In the fall of 2023, Henry Dorn became the first new conductor of the St. Olaf Band in nearly 30 years.
And that same fall, Joseph Jefferson became the first-ever tenure-track conductor of St. Olaf Jazz.
All three are award-winning musicians and educators who bring exceptional talent and perspective to their work leading the college’s internationally renowned ensembles. Just as importantly, they have almost immediately developed deep bonds with each other as musicians and colleagues.
“The three of us are really trying to forge a joint relationship to look with joy toward the future of music-making at St. Olaf,” Dorn says. “It’s pretty remarkable. They are incredibly brilliant and talented people, and I feel really fortunate to work in this space with them.”
Conductor Henry Dorn leads the St. Olaf Band Concert. Henry Dorn conducts the St. Olaf Band during President Susan Rundell Singer’s inauguration. Chung Park conducts the St. Olaf Orchestra. St. Olaf Orchestra Conductor Chung Park leads musicians during the Christmas Festival. Joseph Jefferson conducts St. Olaf Jazz musicians during a performance at Crooners. Conductor Joseph Jefferson leads St. Olaf Jazz in concert.
The college’s newest conductors also have the steadfast support and mentorship of longtime St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong ’78, a well-known and highly regarded musician who has led the ensemble for 34 years.
Armstrong says when he took the reins of the St. Olaf Choir in 1990, he knew he wanted to make innovations to the ensemble’s repertoire and try new things. Yet as he opened new doors, he also wanted to honor the strength and traditions of the ensemble he had inherited — and the leaders who came before him. He sees the new conductors taking a similar approach.
“These three colleagues came to St. Olaf already having demonstrated their ability to seek excellence in their work,” Armstrong says. “They want to give that inspiration to their students here and encourage them to seek excellence in everything they do. It’s exciting to have them as part of this team.”
Park says Armstrong’s support has been inspiring. “He’s been nothing but encouraging. He’s always told us to just be ourselves and to lean into what we do best,” Park says.
And that’s exactly what this new generation of conductors is doing. They are committed to expanding the repertoire their ensembles perform, including more music by American composers and composers from underrepresented communities. They’re making plans to program larger, more complex compositions. And they’re challenging students to take risks and feel the power of the music.
“This is an environment unlike anywhere else that I’ve ever worked. There’s something magical about the dedication and commitment level that the students have.”St. Olaf Band Conductor Henry Dorn
“There needs to be intensity in our work because we can’t fall back on the laurels of our name alone. We have to live up to it. And that comes with a certain kind of intensity and the energy that we put into the music,” Dorn says. “There’s nothing worse to me than a performance that’s perfect but boring. I’d rather it’s a little bit edgy and we took some risks along the way and maybe we didn’t nail every single note, but, man, it was a thrilling performance and a ride by the time we got to the end.”
St. Olaf students have shown that they’re up for the challenge.
“This is an environment unlike anywhere else that I’ve ever worked,” Dorn says. “There’s something magical about the dedication and commitment level that the students have.”
Jefferson agrees. As the college’s first tenure-track jazz conductor, he notes that it’s been particularly heartening to see how eager St. Olaf students are to learn about a uniquely American art form that originated in African American communities.
“Having students who are absolutely fearless and who want to push forward this art form on this campus is wonderful,” he says. “This year has been really transformational for me, just to see a group of students give me every bit of themselves in their music-making.”
Students are not only committed to the music, Park points out, but to each other.
“Our ensembles have an incredible sense of community. Our students support each other,” he says. “When I first got here, I have to tell you, there were a lot of times I thought, ‘Is this for real? Can they really be this nice to each other?’ And they actually are. I think because of that, this orchestra plays at a level that might be greater than the sum of its parts.”
“This year has been really transformational for me, just to see a group of students give me every bit of themselves in their music-making.”St. Olaf Jazz Conductor Joseph Jefferson
That combination of talent, commitment, and community makes for endless possibilities, the three new conductors say.
“It’s remarkable the high caliber of music-making that exists here and has historically existed here. That is a tradition that we continue to carry forward. And I’m looking forward to the future legacy and traditions that we can build together,” Dorn says.
“We have to be lifelong learners,” Jefferson adds. “We have to continue to advance, we have to continue to grow, because this music is continually growing and it’s continually advancing.”
Interested in hearing more about the future of music at St. Olaf? Join us on February 29 at 11:30 a.m. in Viking Theater for a conversation with Henry Dorn, Joseph Jefferson, and Chung Park that will be moderated by Anton Armstrong ’78. Held in honor of Black History Month, the event will provide an overview of music at St. Olaf, an introduction to each of the new conductors, and time for attendees to ask questions.