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Former St. Olaf Choir Conductor Kenneth Jennings ’50 dies

Ken JenningsSt. Olaf College Professor Emeritus of Music Kenneth Jennings ’50, who led the St. Olaf Choir for more than two decades, died August 20. He was 90 years old.

The funeral is planned for September 18.

“The world of choral music lost a great giant,” St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong ’78 tells Minnesota Public Radio. “He was an immense influence on many of the leading choral directors of his time, both those who were able to sing under his baton or his beautiful hands, and those who experienced his performances with the St. Olaf Choir and the other choirs he conducted. We will remember him with great love and great admiration, and most of all, with great appreciation for the beauty he brought to the world of choral music.”

Jennings became the third conductor of the St. Olaf Choir in 1968, taking the helm of a renowned ensemble that up to that point had only been led by founder F. Melius Christiansen and his son, Olaf Christiansen ’25.

Brilliant Sound

Under Jennings, the choir developed what one reviewer described as “a more vibrant, warm tone — a resonant, lively, brilliant sound that rings with vitality and conviction.” Jennings coaxed his students to reach their highest musical potential with a quiet leadership style and a graceful form of conducting.

Jennings also expanded the choir’s global reach. The St. Olaf Choir celebrated its 75th anniversary with a tour of Asia in 1986, and in 1988 it was one of only five choirs in the world invited to participate in the Olympic Arts Festival in Seoul, South Korea.

“He inherited a treasured musical tradition from the Christiansens, respected it and let it sing, and added his own musical artistry to the growth and enrichment of the St. Olaf Choir,” wrote Joseph M. Shaw ’49, professor emeritus of religion at St. Olaf and the author of The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative. “What he accomplished will live on through his compositions, recordings of the St. Olaf Choir under his direction, and especially through the hundreds of students he inspired.”

Listen to Armstrong talk with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer about Jennings’ legacy.
Watch videos of Jennings conducting and listen to his music.