Student view: An instrumentalist on the St. Olaf Choir tour
This January, Landry Forrest ’22 was part of a chamber ensemble that joined the St. Olaf Choir on its tour of the East Coast. She reflects on her experience with the ensemble, which included 14 string and woodwind players who accompanied the choir on select pieces throughout the program.
As I took my place on stage on the fifth night of the St. Olaf Choir tour and looked out over the audience, it was clear we were performing for a packed house.
The windows in the sanctuary of Zion Lutheran Church were opened to let a breeze into the space — despite the fact that it was the middle of winter in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Concert staff members were quietly asking audience members at the end of each row to scoot down and make room as a steady flow of more audience members trickled in.
As we raised our instruments to play and as the choir members prepared to sing, the room was silent. But as soon as we filled the hall with the first notes of Haydn’s Laetatus Sum, the jaws of three high school girls in the front row dropped wide open.
This moment was one of the most memorable for me as a performer because I was able to see the real impact we had on people as musicians. It was amusing to see such a physical reaction to our performance from those three audience members, but their expressions truly represent the emotion felt and shown by our audiences throughout the tour. I loved seeing how excited each audience was to hear us perform and clearly remember seeing the smiles on their faces as we played and sang.
I loved seeing how excited each audience was to hear us perform and clearly remember seeing the smiles on their faces as we played and sang.
Months before that tour moment, while talking on the phone with my mom in the group study room of the Halvorson Music Library at St. Olaf, I received an email asking if I would be interested in playing with the ensemble accompanying the St. Olaf Choir on their tour this past January and February. As I read the email out loud to her, I could hear a series of excited inhales accompanied with “No way! Oh my gosh!” on repeat.
As an oboist in the Norseman Band, just about the last thing I expected to be doing during my Interim break was performing with any choir, let alone touring with the St. Olaf Choir throughout the East Coast — including a performance at the renowned Carnegie Hall.
This tour marked the 100th anniversary of the ensemble’s first trip to Carnegie Hall and conductor Anton Armstrong’s 30th year leading the St. Olaf Choir. The program for the concerts highlighted themes of love, hope, justice, and rejoicing. Select pieces on the program featured a 14-member chamber ensemble led by St. Olaf Professor of Music Charles Gray on violin.
This ensemble consisted of six violins, two violas, one cello, one string bass, two oboes, one English horn, and one bassoon. Professor of Oboe Dana Maeda, Professor of Music Steven Amundson, and Professor Gray selected the members of the ensemble. One of the players, Jonah Schmitz ’20, is also a member of the St. Olaf Choir, and was able to join the chamber ensemble during the pieces we played on. The chamber ensemble musicians included members from the Norseman Band, St. Olaf Philharmonia, and the St. Olaf Orchestra.
We accompanied the St. Olaf Choir on Haydn’s Laetatus Sum, Bach’s Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, and alumnus Ralph Johnson’s On Horizon’s Brim. Being able to tour as an instrumentalist with the St. Olaf Choir is a rare opportunity, and I’m so grateful to have been a part of it. Having an orchestra alongside the choir for select pieces allows the audience to experience a variety of repertoire and styles of music that aren’t often put together on tours.
As soon as I looked at the travel itinerary and saw the music for the tour, I knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in such high-level music-making. Throughout the two weeks, we performed in renowned halls famous for both their acoustics and historic relevance. These included Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio (home of the Cleveland Orchestra), Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, Yale University, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, and Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Each of these halls allowed us an opportunity to perform on the same stage as countless influential musicians and performing ensembles. We were able to see historical memorabilia in museums and dedicated rooms, including Benny Goodman’s clarinet and Leonard Bernstein’s baton in Carnegie Hall as well as George Szell’s score collection in Severance Hall. We even got to sign our names in guest books shared by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis and on walls of auditoriums signed by other famous bands and solo artists.
Each of these halls allowed us an opportunity to perform on the same stage as countless influential musicians and performing ensembles.
While performing in these halls and others are certainly memorable experiences that all of us will remember, what I found to be equally significant was the opportunity to collaborate with other musicians I wouldn’t normally work with.
Having never played with any of these people before, I was nervous to spend two weeks with them. However, I was blown away by the ease at which we were able to connect with each other both as musicians and in our interests outside of music.
Whether it was singing songs from musicals in the dressing rooms, playing card games in the hotels, or learning more about each other on hours-long bus dates, we were all constantly bonding and forming friendships throughout the tour.
And having never been in a choir or vocal ensemble, I was in a new environment. Even more so than the other instrumentalists I played with, performing with a choir gave me an opportunity to work with students and faculty I wouldn’t normally collaborate with.
After our performance in Carnegie Hall, we had a free day in New York City. Many family members and friends of choir members and instrumentalists had come to see the performance, and this was an opportunity to spend time with them and to explore the city. Many students were able to see Broadway shows, operas, and historic museums and sites.
Personally, I was able to spend time with my grandma, aunt, and cousin, and then went to see the New York Philharmonic with the other chamber ensemble members. Seeing the New York Philharmonic was an incredible way to end our free day because we were able to witness even more incredible music-making on the tour.
I was constantly impressed and inspired by the drive that everyone had in passionately performing throughout the long two weeks. Even on long days and during late nights, everyone gave their all to give each audience the best performance they could. I think that this fact showcases the level of dedication and love each member of this tour had for the music we were performing and the connection to each other that we felt.
As I think back on this experience as I finish the semester remotely, I am especially appreciative of the time I was able to spend in person with the musicians and staff members who made this tour as successful as it was. From the professional concert hall and performances to the fun times after concerts with friends, all aspects of the tour are things I will take with me as I continue performing and studying music throughout college, especially when we are able to return to campus.