The Power of Music
Beginning his 30th year as conductor of the world renowned St. Olaf Choir and as artistic director of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, Anton Armstrong ’78 is keeping his eyes fixed on the future.
It was hot in Australia and New Zealand in February 1997 when the St. Olaf Choir embarked on its first tour Down Under. Their excitement was palpable. Anton Armstrong had been conducting the choir for seven years. In addition to performing concerts in Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, Cairns, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Sydney, he and his students would have time for recreational events such as museum, cultural center, and animal sanctuary visits, a sailing cruise aboard the Søren Larsen, excursions to the Great Barrier Reef and a New Zealand glacier, and homestays that offered diverse cultural experiences. Robert “BJ” Johnson’s meticulously planned tour was designed to balance music-making with academics. Prior to leaving campus, the students had studied the cultures of the indigenous Aborigines in Australia and Maoris in New Zealand, and the culture of the early Western settlers, providing them with important social and historical contexts before they arrived in Auckland.
A particularly memorable visit to a small Maori village outside of Auckland appears in The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative, by Joseph M. Shaw. As told by Bruce Benson, the St. Olaf College pastor who accompanied the choir on its tour, the Maori began the visit by performing a traditional rite of challenge and welcome for Armstrong and his choir. Well-coached for the fierce ceremony, Armstrong, as “chief” of the choir “tribe,” stood without flinching during a “threatening dance” by a local leader, eventually bending down to grasp the leader’s stick in a symbolic gesture of peace and goodwill. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Maori requested a song from the St. Olaf Choir. Of the many songs Armstrong had chosen for the tour, one was a gentle 1907 Maori lullaby, Hine e Hine, newly arranged by New Zealander David Hamilton. As the American students began singing Hine e Hine in the Maori’s native language, the villagers’ initial wariness turned to welcome. “Thus began the continuing series of spur-of-the-moment concerts by the choir,” said Benson.
That afternoon, as the students traveled through the village shopping and harmonizing while they walked, they spontaneously gathered in the town square and began singing Hine e Hine. Armstrong remembers hearing the music from the gift shop he was in, watching as shoppers and clerks went outside to find the source of the music. By the time Armstrong reached his students, all 70-plus members of the choir were singing. He joined them, and while directing the final measures and bringing the impromptu performance to a close, people listened and watched with rapt attention.
A Maori woman approached him, eyes shining, asking if he was their “chief.”
Armstrong answered, “Yes, I am.”
“You know our songs,” she said. “You know our hearts and souls when you sing like that.”
* * *
It’s been 30 years since Anton Armstrong took the helm of the St. Olaf Choir. He is only its fourth conductor since its founding 108 years ago, and its first conductor of color. In two years, he will surpass the St. Olaf Choir’s legendary founder, F. Melius Christiansen, as its longest-serving conductor. The world has changed profoundly since 1990, when Armstrong accepted the position as conductor of the choir. But what hasn’t changed is the core of Armstrong’s being and his belief that music is transformational and transcends language and culture, and that through the art of choral performance, messages of truth, understanding, mercy, justice, peace, hope, and love can be conveyed to a world that is crying out for these things.
* * *
Armstrong’s early family history began in the Caribbean: His father, William, was born and raised in Antigua, British West Indies, but came to the United States when he was 18. His mother, Esther, was born in the United States and raised in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands before moving to Harlem as a teenager. William, a tailor, and Esther, a nurse, met in New York City, where Armstrong was born in 1956. He was their third son.
Raised on Long Island by devout Lutheran parents, Armstrong’s biggest musical influence growing up was his family church in Hempstead, the Lutheran Church of the Epiphany, where Armstrong attended the parish day school. He sang his first solo, Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne and Thy Kingly Crown, as a kindergartner, sang in the junior choir, and played the piano by ear for morning devotions.
The church pastor, Rev. Herbert Gibney, and the church’s music directors, Carl and Carol Weber, graduates of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, recognized and encouraged Armstrong’s musical gifts, as did his parents, and it was in the church that, in addition to eight years of piano lessons, he learned to read music and studied musical literature. The Webers, who had a son the same age as Armstrong, took the boys and Armstrong’s parents to a Long Island performance of the New Jersey-based American Boychoir. When the choir came on stage and opened their concert with a double chorus Renaissance piece, Armstrong recalls, “I was just blown away! I wanted to be in that choir!”
The American Boychoir School, a boarding/day school in Princeton, New Jersey, with a national reputation, offered musical vocal and instrumental training, and its professional choir toured regularly. Although William and Esther allowed Armstrong to audition for the choir, the cost of the boarding school was prohibitive. Instead, he attended its summer camp in 1968.
“Quite frankly, my mother didn’t want to send her child away for somebody else to raise,” Armstrong recounted. “I have two older brothers who are 10 and 14 years older than I am. She was just turning 40 when she had me, and she said, ‘I didn’t have a child this late only to have somebody else raise him.’ ”
But at age 13, a determined and focused Armstrong quietly reapplied to the boarding school without telling his parents. When he received a generous scholarship with his acceptance letter, William and Esther relented and stretched their means to make possible this opportunity that was so important to their son. What followed was a top-tier choral education for his middle school years and his first experience with national and international touring, including singing at the White House for President Richard Nixon and his family.
“My last [American Boychoir] tour was to Italy in 1971,” says Armstrong. “We sang not only mass at St. Peter’s but also at a private concert for Pope Paul VI at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. It was that experience that really set my heart and mind on a love of choral singing.”
Graduating from the American Boychoir School, Armstrong would next attend the Cathedral School of St. Paul in Garden City, New York, a college-prep, residential Episcopal high school for boys. St. Paul’s shared coeducational classes with its sister school, St. Mary’s, but it had very limited musical offerings. Armstrong found a way to continue his musical interests, however, by playing the organ for St. Paul’s and St. Mary’s chapel services.
* * *
Armstrong was 16 when his pastor, Rev. Robert Hawk, told him about the St. Olaf Choir that would be performing at Lincoln Center in Manhattan as part of its annual national tour. Knowing his love for excellent choral music, his pastor naturally assumed Armstrong would be interested in this concert.
“And I said, ‘That’s very nice.’ But I had tickets to see the Moody Blues at the Garden, and I was going with a bunch of my buddies, and I had paid for these tickets out of my own money. So I said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’ Well, he wasn’t one to take no for an answer.” Rev. Hawk went to Armstrong’s parents, and his mother vetoed the English rock band because her son hadn’t asked for permission to see them. She only gave him permission to see the St. Olaf Choir at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center. It was a memorable choral concert that Armstrong thoroughly enjoyed, and the image of the iconic purple robes worn by the choir stayed with him, but St. Olaf College wasn’t on his radar. A year and half later, Armstrong was ready to research colleges. In addition to music, he was interested in studying theology, anthropology, and political science. He looked at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he could live with oldest brother, Garry, as well as Westminster Choir College. Another suggestion was that he attend Wagner College, a Lutheran liberal arts college on Staten Island, “but I was determined I was not going to go there because my pastor was the secretary of the Board of Trustees and everyone else in my church went there.” It made Armstrong want to strike out on his own, to find a school far from New York. “That’s how I’ve been all my life,” he says. “I don’t do what everybody else does.”
Armstrong attended a Lutheran College fair on Long Island with this in mind. He had his eye on Gettysburg and Muhlenberg Colleges in Pennsylvania, although his top choice, he says, was probably Capital University in Ohio. But there were long lines of students at the booths, all waiting to speak with college representatives. Growing up in New York had left him with a distaste for traffic, so when he passed — for the third time — a college booth with no line, he accepted an invitation by the admissions officer, Bruce Moe, to learn about St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Armstrong remembered the St. Olaf Choir and its purple robes. That was all he knew, though the college did appear to have everything he was looking for: an inclusive Lutheran tradition in which vocation was important, and a mission that incorporated a global perspective and fostered the development of the whole person in mind, body, and spirit. Its academics were excellent, and it had a strong religion department, a thriving music department, and great choirs.
But there was still one thing Armstrong wanted to know. “How many black students go to your school?”
Moe got a glint in his eye. “You’d make one more.”
“I thought that was a really honest answer,” Armstrong says. He put St. Olaf on his list of colleges to visit.
* * *
“We arrived in Minneapolis, and it was sunny and bright, but it was eight degrees.”
Armstrong and his brother Garry drove a rental car under the cold blue skies of Minnesota, heading south over the Minnesota River toward Northfield. As Minneapolis disappeared behind them, the countryside became more rural, with vast farmlands, wetlands, and forests. They left the interstate and turned onto a country road. Looking out the window, Armstrong concluded that Garry must have gotten lost.
But eventually, after a bend in the road, St. Olaf College came into view, sitting on top of a hill. And as they drove onto the campus, Armstrong was struck by its beauty. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was like the Fortress of Solitude in my Superman comics,” he says. “Literally, everything that day was white. The ground was covered in freshly fallen snow. The trees were white with hoarfrost. The buildings were white limestone. The people were white. Even the meal that day was white. It was Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, and cauliflower.”
Despite all that whiteness, Armstrong found a lot to like at St. Olaf — especially the music. He met with admissions staff, interviewed with and sang for St. Olaf Choir Conductor Kenneth Jennings ’50, and although there was no time to act on Jennings’ invitation to attend a St. Olaf Choir rehearsal that evening, Armstrong stopped by Boe Memorial Chapel with his brother, where the Chapel Choir, under Robert Scholz’s direction, was rehearsing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. As they left the Hill, Armstrong had the feeling he could be very happy at St. Olaf College.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about Scandinavia at that time, certainly not much about Norwegians or people of Norwegian descent,” Armstrong says. “But what I did see in the St. Olaf community — and I think it’s present here now — is people who were raised with the same values I was raised with in a black home and in my black neighborhood.” Those values, he adds, included hard work, respect for tradition, respect for others, and a belief in the centrality of God in their lives.
That sameness of spirit sealed the deal for Armstrong, and he arrived on campus as a first-year student in the fall of 1974. Armstrong first sang in the Chapel Choir and then was invited by Kenneth Jennings to join the St. Olaf Choir in his junior year. As a music major with a focus on vocal performance, Armstrong gave voice recitals, toured with the St. Olaf Choir, participated in the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival, studied instrumental and vocal conducting, and accepted an opportunity from Professor Alice Larsen to student-conduct the Manitou Singers his senior year, an experience that fostered his growing interest in conducting. Like all Oles, he balanced his music and academics with student activities. He ran for the Student Senate, was politically active, and co-led a series of forums on relevant racial issues as part of the student-run Black Action Committee.
But it was the friendships he forged with professors and other Oles that held the most meaning for him. “One of the blessings of my student years was making lifelong friendships. I count chief among these friendships my roommate, Ralph Johnson, and his wife, Laurie Richardson Johnson. We all sang together in the St. Olaf Choir,” he says. “I was privileged to be a groomsman in Ralph and Laurie’s wedding, godfather to their middle child, Dan, and I was delighted to serve as voice teacher to their oldest son, Matt, who also sang in the St. Olaf Choir.”
When Armstrong graduated in 1978, his friends, parents, and brothers, Garry and Billy, were all there to support him as he began the next step in his journey, graduate school.
* * *
“When I first began conducting and teaching, I had a take-charge attitude, the notion that the young people in front of me were there to do my bidding. I see myself as a catalyst now, someone who helps bring out the best in them, as musicians and as individuals.”
After obtaining his master’s in choral music at the University of Illinois, Armstrong accepted a teaching position at Calvin College (now Calvin University) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a good fit, and over time he achieved the academic rank of associate professor of music. Three years into his tenure at Calvin, Armstrong was awarded a fellowship at Michigan State University to complete his doctoral studies; the subject of his dissertation was the St. Olaf Choir. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Armstrong spent the next 10 years moving from strength to strength, leading the mixed voice Campus Choir, the Calvin College Alumni Choir, the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, and the St. Cecilia Youth Chorale. Admired and respected by colleagues and students alike, Armstrong had earned an impressive professional reputation at Calvin College and in the Grand Rapids community, when suddenly his career took an unexpected turn.
Back at St. Olaf College, the Kenneth Jennings era was coming to an end. Jennings embarked on his final concert tour with the St. Olaf Choir, heading to the East Coast, where the choir performed in major concert halls, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Carnegie Hall in New York City. Jennings finished his 22-year tenure with a concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, after which he was honored at a private celebration for his leadership and artistry by family, friends, colleagues, and associates. Former students sent letters, writing in touching terms how Jennings affirmed and encouraged them.
Armstrong hadn’t been back to the Hill since his 10th class reunion in 1988, during which time he and two other black alumni, Ken Brown ’38 and Isaiah Harriday ’63, were interviewed about St. Olaf’s recruitment and support of minority students and faculty. It was a time of civil rights victories punctuated by tragedies and setbacks, increased connectedness and yet increased fragmentation. In The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative, Shaw notes that the three men agreed that a comprehensive strategic plan would be necessary for the college to become a multicultural campus where students from diverse backgrounds could grow and thrive. Armstrong cited the positive results of such a plan that had been implemented at Calvin College.
Now St. Olaf was embarking on a search for a new conductor to take the helm of its elite choir and build on its legacy. The academic world had changed since Kenneth Jennings was chosen as the St. Olaf Choir’s third conductor. No longer would the new conductor be selected by the current conductor, as had been the tradition when F. Melius Christiansen selected his son Olaf C. Christiansen ’25 to succeed him, and Olaf Christiansen had selected Jennings. Instead, the college formed a search committee chaired by Kenneth Graber, St. Olaf music professor and Music Department chair. For the first time, St. Olaf held a national search for this key college leadership position. Finalists would be put through exhaustive daylong interviews and expected to conduct the St. Olaf Choir in three choral pieces in the presence of the search committee and assorted faculty. Graber, who had been Armstrong’s academic advisor and piano professor, informed his former student that his name had been submitted for the job. From a pool of more than 60 applicants, Armstrong was one of five final candidates, and the youngest.
When the search committee chose him to succeed his mentor as the fourth conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, Armstrong couldn’t believe it at first. He had a couple of questions for Graber about his appointment.
“He knew me for the good and the bad of me,” he says. He asked his former advisor, “Was it a unanimous vote?”
Graber responded, “Absolutely.”
“Did my race have any influence in the vote?”
Graber took a minute to craft his response. “Anton, we were looking for the finest musician who could give us a vision for the future. Your race and ethnicity we don’t deny — that will be an added bonus to having you come here if you accept our offer — but ultimately you were chosen because of the quality of man and musician you are.”
Armstrong could rest easy knowing that he was chosen on the virtue of merit and promise, even though his identity had not gone ignored and unseen. While he possessed many similarities to the previous St. Olaf Choir conductors — he was an alumnus and a student of his predecessor, a consummate musician, and a lifelong Lutheran — he also brought change and innovation as the first black conductor, the first conductor who was not also a composer, and the youngest conductor ever appointed.
While maintaining the rich heritage of the St. Olaf Choir, Armstrong immediately brought his personal touch, building on the legacy he inherited. While F. Melius Christiansen, who had established the ensemble’s standard of excellence and controlled tone, chose spiritually profound, traditional Lutheran chorales that had their foundation in secular folk music, Olaf Christiansen added contemporary compositions, as well as more Renaissance and American folk hymns to the repertoire. Kenneth Jennings introduced larger choral works — oratorios, masses, and passions — including more 20th-century pieces. While Jennings retained much of the choir’s a cappella repertoire, he introduced the music of Asia and Eastern Europe as well as music with instrumental accompaniment, opening the door for full orchestral collaborations.
When Armstrong took the helm in 1990, he was interested in doing “musical literature that had not been done before” in addition to classical sacred music. His vast knowledge of music and his ability to articulate a vision to singers and audiences alike was destined to take the St. Olaf Choir to the next level, adding more flavor to its signature sound and further expanding its repertoire to include music of the Pacific Rim, Africa, and Latin America.
This was made all the more possible, says Armstrong, thanks to the expertise of the late BJ Johnson. Johnson, as manager of the college’s music organizations, arranged domestic and international concert tours and facilitated the production of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, for which Armstrong was its artistic director. Johnson’s collaborative work with Twin Cities Public Television also ensured that the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival and two PBS Christmas specials filmed at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, became holiday highlights.
“Throughout the years, the conductors of the St. Olaf Choir have had incredible allies in the individuals who served as managers of [the college’s] music organizations. Certainly for Ken Jennings and myself, that person was BJ,” says Armstrong. “BJ’s visionary and innovative spirit, and his attention to detail, allowed me to make my dreams a reality. Without his support and encouragement, these last 30 years would have been far less rich.”
Armstrong considers himself fortunate that this vital relationship now continues with the skillful leadership of Johnson’s successor, Jean Parish ’88, director of college relations for music organizations.
* * *
“About the time I became conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, the Berlin Wall was crumbling, the Soviet Union was dissolving, Apartheid was ending, relations with Latin America were strengthening. Suddenly an incredible amount of choral music was coming out of the Eastern European bloc, Africa, and Latin America, music that was available to sing and share. And so I tried to broaden the repertoire so that we represented the global community, the global church.”
Aware that he was standing on the shoulders of giants, Armstrong began to instill in the St. Olaf Choir his own love of music. In The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative, former student Ann Oldfield ’92 recalled that while Armstrong’s more subtle style of conducting — the raising of an eyebrow, the lift of his chin, his willingness to push them to their emotional and physical limit — was similar to that of his predecessors, his buoyant personality was unique and engaging. “His knees would be bouncing, his shoulders would be grooving . . . he was never afraid to tell the choir his opinion about our posture or expression. He would say, ‘Altos, time for a little Aretha here,’ or ‘I want more Motown,’ or ‘I’m getting white M&M’s here. We need Godiva chocolate!’ ” The young black conductor who could call for “molto con blasto” and characterize former St. Olaf president Lars Boe as an “ecumenical sort of dude” was generations removed from the buttoned-up dignity of F. Melius Christiansen.
Armstrong soon won the approval of members of the St. Olaf Choir, his St. Olaf colleagues and alumni, and audiences who flocked to concert halls and churches to hear the choir. As the choir toured and performed, their expanding repertoire included choral pieces from different countries and sung in different languages. In continuing to develop a more global, multicultural program, Armstrong used the work of younger composers in addition to the familiar folk tunes, Norwegian music, and anthems composed by the Christiansens and Jennings. “The choir’s palate is broader and more colorful, retaining its characteristic sound while adding a lot of spice,” he explained. But there were critics who were unhappy with Armstrong and his style.
Because a cappella sacred music is such a tradition-rich genre, its admirers tend to be attentive to any shifts in style or quality. Conductors, performers, and composers must balance keeping the practice contemporary with preserving its authenticity. Armstrong describes his balancing act as “giving honor and homage to the legacy we’ve built while opening new doors and welcoming new ways of expressing beauty and art beyond the Western European canon.” One of his changes was to include African American concert spirituals in each program.
The changes he brought were not always viewed favorably, and these criticisms were sometimes combined with criticisms of Armstrong’s teaching background or his race. Because of his experience with the St. Cecilia Youth Chorale, some thought his experience was primarily with conducting children, which led to the remark that he didn’t have the qualifications to lead one of the finest mixed college choirs in the country. Others took umbrage at a black man leading the choir, and shared their anger via hate mail. Anonymous letters exhorted Armstrong to “take your music someplace where it’s wanted and give us our choir back.” Another warned St. Olaf President Mel George that “appointing someone like Armstrong would send the quality of [St. Olaf’s] music program the way of the Chicago public schools.” At least one letter had a swastika on the outside and a picture of Hitler inside, demonstrating that no community is immune to prejudice.
André Thomas, composer, conductor, and professor emeritus of choral music education at Florida State University, has been one of Armstrong’s closest friends since their graduate school years at the University of Illinois. Thomas attended Armstrong’s first home concert in February 1991 following the choir’s national tour. He was very much aware of some of the negative feedback his good friend had received since his appointment, and Thomas felt that because of it, it was all the more important that Armstrong had the full support of the college, the choir, and his colleagues.
“The St. Olaf community has always been a loving community,” Armstrong says. “It supported me and others who strive to bring love and diversity to this community. An important focus of my current work, especially as a member of the St. Olaf Council for Equity and Inclusion, is to create a space at the college where all feel that they belong. I have a powerful weapon against hate in these young souls and their beautiful voices. So as long as I’m in this position and God gives me life to carry on, we’ll be bringing a message of hope, compassion, and love.”
* * *
“Body, mind, spirit, voice — it takes the whole person to sing and rejoice!”
Armstrong credits Helen Kemp, a professor emerita of voice and church music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, as being one of the most influential people of his life. Kemp, whom he met when he was 22 years old, shaped the way he viewed his vocation as a vocal music educator and conductor. “She was instrumental in helping me form my understanding of being a servant-artist-teacher,” he says.
The mantra Kemp shared with him so long ago resulted in Armstrong’s aim to nurture young musicians holistically in the four dimensions of “body, mind, spirit, and voice.” He does this whether in his role as conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, artistic director of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, or the Tosdal Professor of Music at St. Olaf, where he teaches vocal pedagogy and leads classes and performance studies in voice. Armstrong has influenced thousands of singers through his work as a conductor, a teacher, and a teacher of teachers. He also provides choirs with new music as music editor of the Anton Armstrong Multicultural Series of Earthsong Publications and as co-editor (with Professor Emeritus of Music John Ferguson) of the St. Olaf Choral Series, published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers.
These collaborations and connections are a way to ensure that the music Armstrong helps create — with its powerful message of faith and hope — has a ripple effect that reaches beyond the boundaries of St. Olaf College and its choir. His dedication to others is a constant.
“Entertainment is fine in its own right, but I want to go beyond that,” he says. “I hope that the music that we share with our audiences transforms those who perform it and who hear it to become more compassionate, more caring, more loving, more hopeful in a world that wants to destroy hope.”
Those who know Armstrong describe him as a giving, loving, and inspiring teacher and person. André Thomas notes that some of Armstrong’s greatest talents as a conductor tie in with his greatest talent as a person: he advocates for young and promising musicians and composers and interprets all work with individualized attention and care, just as he offers individualized support and care for the students he works with. “His strength lies in eliciting the best of other people.” Thomas says, “Not all conductors can do that. Conducting the St. Olaf Choir has been his dream for 30 years, and he’s mastered his dream.”
* * *
“The power of music to make a difference, whether at St. Olaf College or in the world, should not be underestimated. [In the choir,] we have a lot of political views, we have a lot of religious beliefs. But we put aside what might divide us, because when you do choral singing, you have to listen to the people around you. Music helps us find the common good, find the unison, and find the harmony.”
Armstrong’s influence extends far wider than the Hill St. Olaf sits on, touching the international world of choral music in locations as diverse as Scandinavia, Latin America, the Middle East, the Pacific Rim, Central Europe, to name a few. In addition to touring new corners of the globe with the St. Olaf Choir, he has shared his choral knowledge and conducting prowess as guest conductor for top international choirs and choral festivals, including the Oregon Bach Festival, founded by the German choral conductor Helmuth Rilling and choral conductor Royce Saltzman.
Invited by Rilling and Saltzman to join them in the pursuit of their dream festival, Armstrong has served as director of the Oregon Bach Festival’s Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy since its inception in 1998, providing instruction and guidance to more than 1200 young singers. “Out of this program have come dozens of students who selected St. Olaf as their college,” says Armstrong, who received the festival’s highest honor, the Saltzman Award, in 2013.
“He is more than a conductor,” said Royce Saltzman, the festival’s founding executive director, when Armstrong received the award. “He has mentored these young people in a way that has changed lives and molded them into outstanding citizens.”
In recent years Armstrong has been invited to conduct some of the leading ensembles in the United States, including the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, the Phoenix Chorale, the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati, and the Houston Chamber Choir. Internationally, Armstrong has guest-conducted the Formosa Singers of Taiwan and the Oman-based American International School of Muscat’s Festival of Choirs, the Israel-based Zimriya World Assembly of Choirs, the World Youth Choir, and the Republic of Korea’s Jeju Island International Choir Festival and Symposium where, for the third time, he guest-conducted the acclaimed Ansan City Choir. He served as a member of the Choral Jury for the first Tokyo International Choir Competition in Japan and has been involved with the World Symposium on Choral Music in its various forms and settings, teaching masterclasses as well as serving on its artistic committee. His work never ends: he conducted the Indonesia Youth Choir last summer and will be in the United Kingdom for the Cambridge Summer Singing Week in 2020, as well as returning to serve on the Choral Jury for the Busan Choral Festival in Busan, South Korea.
One result of his prolific work is that he has been able to build long-lasting relationships, particularly with the people of Norway, including Anita Brevik, conductor of the Nidaros Cathedral Girls’ Choir, and Rev. Knut Brakstad, private secretary to His Majesty King Harald V. Armstrong has conducted the St. Olaf Choir before the Norwegian Royal Family four times, enough to have had a few conversations with King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway, who are “very down-to-earth people, gracious and inquisitive about others, curious about St. Olaf.”
Armstrong sees these international tours as a way to live the values of St. Olaf College, particularly the values of excellence, inclusion, and global citizenship. And “while we can’t always speak the same language,” he says, “we can always sing together.”
* * *
“We seek to be a transforming force in society through choral performance, bringing understanding, mercy, justice, peace, and hope to a world that desperately cries out for these things.”
Armstrong has humbly described himself as a shepherd of others, deflecting praise to honor his colleagues and former mentors. He cites those who have made a deep and lasting impression on his life, including choral colleagues Robert Scholz, John Ferguson, Sigrid Johnson, Christopher Aspaas, James Bob, Mark Stover, Therees Hibbard, and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu. And too, “For these past 30 years, my life has been enriched by my wonderful friend and colleague Steven Amundson, who conducts the St. Olaf Orchestra. I have been fortunate to be at St. Olaf and to have incredible colleagues and students who push me to be my best self,” he says.
His students have always seemed to understand the depth of his commitment to others and have extended that care in turn even when he was his most vulnerable self. On February 13, 2007, Armstrong’s beloved mother, Esther, passed away. The choir had just returned from its domestic tour, and Armstrong was about to leave again to conduct the Texas All-State Choir. He had just received Baylor University’s Robert Frost Cherry Award for Great Teaching and would be teaching one of the country’s greatest all-state choirs as a visiting conductor for a semester.
But there he was, on the day before his scheduled trip, doing the heart-wrenching work of making his mother’s funeral arrangements. He had no time to grieve.
That night, he received a call from BJ Johnson. “The students really want to see you,” Johnson said.
“Bob, I’m really emotionally raw right now. I can’t,” said Armstrong, who had already said his goodbyes to the choir, knowing he wouldn’t see them again for another six months.
Johnson insisted. “Anton, they need to see you.”
Relenting, Armstrong went with Johnson to the rehearsal room in Christiansen Hall of Music. The students asked Armstrong to sit in a chair set in the middle of the room, and they surrounded him for a laying on of hands while singing Abide with Me, a hymn that Armstrong loved. Knowing what the hymn meant to their conductor, Luke Warren ’07, a senior member of the choir and bass section leader, had taught it to the new members so that they could all sing together.
“They sent me home with the strength to say goodbye to my mother.” Armstrong remembers. “That moment is as powerful to me as those standing ovations at the national American Choral Directors Association conferences, singing in front of the president of the United States, or performing before the Norwegian Royal Family. That was so touching and meaningful to me.”
Today, as audiences listen to the music of the St. Olaf Choir in churches and gothic cathedrals, in school auditoriums and concert halls, but also in live concerts streamed on electronic devices big and small, on computers and on television, Armstrong is confident that the choir will remain at the forefront of choral singing.
“Maybe the strongest aspect of our Lutheran tradition at St. Olaf is that we still believe in grace. And that is what I try to reflect in the programming of the St. Olaf Choir. We’re all on a faith journey. We try to offer not a didactic way of thinking about God, but to invite people into a musical conversation where thoughts and feelings can be explored — where they can see a God of love, a God of hope. Still small voices and burning bushes don’t seem to work anymore. But when the St. Olaf Choir begins to sing, when the chords we’ve struggled with finally lock and the music soars, God is there.”
“We are constantly examining repertoire from a global perspective, but the core of our being is still a proclamation of the Christian Gospel — a message of faith, love, and truth. I want the power of music — that Spirit — to transform those who perform and those who will hear the message. For me, that is a very powerful reason for doing what we do.”