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St. Olaf Choir to mark 100th anniversary of first national tour, perform at Carnegie

When the St. Olaf Choir embarks on its 2020 National Winter Tour this month, it will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its ground-breaking first national tour to the East Coast.

The tour includes the St. Olaf Choir’s 12th concert at Carnegie Hall, where after its first performance in 1920 a New York Times reviewer noted that “it may be numbered among the few ‘virtuoso’ choirs that have been heard here in recent years.”

Throughout its history, the St. Olaf Choir has set a gold standard for choral singing, and the ensemble’s 75 singers and conductor Anton Armstrong ’78 will perform in 15 cities from Saturday, January 18, through Tuesday, February 11. In addition to Carnegie Hall, they will present concerts in renowned venues including Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, and Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, as part of a nine-state tour to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Tickets are available online or by phone at 800-363-5487.

Hearing the St. Olaf Choir in concert is more than just a musical experience,” says Armstrong. “Our singers, performing at the highest artistic level, convey a message of hope. Our music provides a bridge to what can unite us at a time when the world is so divided. We often hear from concertgoers who tell us they are not only struck by the sound and uniformity of the St. Olaf Choir, but also by the earnestness of what comes through the voices of our young singers. Our singers touch the hearts and souls of listeners, and our audiences leave transformed.”

Our singers touch the hearts and souls of listeners, and our audiences leave transformed.St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong ’78

The 2020 National Tour also marks Armstrong’s 30th year as conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, only the fourth to lead the ensemble during its 108-year history. In addition to his role as a professor of music at St. Olaf College, he is in demand in the international choral scene as a guest conductor and lecturer. Like his three predecessors, Armstrong carries forward the international reputation of the St. Olaf Choir, an ensemble that is rooted in St. Olaf’s tradition of faith and commitment to a global perspective.

2020 National Tour
Armstrong has assembled a program for the tour that draws from the St. Olaf Choir’s history, as well as contemporary works by composers who have had strong ties to the St. Olaf Choir. A champion of music from cultures around the world, Armstrong has also programmed music — both sacred and secular — that ranges from works by the Renaissance Jewish composer Salamone Rossi to Jordanian-born Shireen Abu Khader (who now lives in Toronto).

The St. Olaf Choir, led by Anton Armstrong ’78, perform in Stavanger, Norway, during the ensemble’s 2019 international tour.

Joining the St. Olaf Choir and Armstrong on their tour is violinist and violist Charles Gray, a professor of music at St. Olaf. He will lead a 12-person chamber ensemble that will perform with the St. Olaf Choir on this tour. A former member of the Rochester Philharmonic in New York and the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, Gray is currently a substitute member of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Historic 1920 East Coast Tour
Known as the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir in 1920, the St. Olaf Choir created a major sensation under the direction of founding conductor F. Melius Christiansen.

A program from the 1920 national tour.

“Exquisitely balanced, fresh, and euphonious in quality, and trained to a precision equal to that of the Bach Choir,” wrote H.E. Krehbiel in the New York Tribune on April 28, 1920. M.M. Howard of the Buffalo Express offered this assessment on May 1, 1920: “The work of the St. Olaf Choir is in some respects the last word in choral singing.”

The historic 1920 tour revealed that the St. Olaf Choir was transcending America’s limited early 20th century choral tradition with the introduction of a cappella singing of the highest level, creating a new model for the widespread choral growth across the nation that followed. The St. Olaf Choir established an international reputation for its unique combination of superior choral singing and the presentation of challenging choral programming with a vast repertoire encompassing the entire history of Western music, from Renaissance polyphony to new music representing cultures from around the world.

Since then, the St. Olaf Choir has established a long history of innovation. It became one of the first to tour the nation regularly after the tour in 1920. The St. Olaf Choir also began recording in the 1920s and performed on air when radio was in its infancy. The annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival has aired on national and international radio and television for more than 40 years, and continues to serve as a prototype for these types of holiday broadcasts.

The St. Olaf Choir regularly tours nationally and internationally, including several tours of Norway, most recently in 2019, as well as a 2017 tour to Japan and Korea, a 2013 tour to Norway, a 2009 tour to England, Wales and Ireland, a 2005 tour of Norway, a 2001 European tour including Paris, Prague, Bratislava, Vienna, Leipzig, and Berlin, and a 1997 tour to Australia and New Zealand. Annual national tours attract audiences totaling 25,000.