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Washington Post: St. Olaf is a driver of the Midwest’s love for orchestras

Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu conducts the St. Olaf Orchestra during the 2021 Christmas Festival.
Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu conducts the St. Olaf Orchestra during the 2021 Christmas Festival.

When the Washington Post went searching for the reasons behind the Midwest’s above-average fondness for orchestras, a number of tips pointed the newspaper in the same direction: St. Olaf College.

In a recent “Department of Data” feature, Post reporter Andrew Van Dam combed through data and sought reader feedback to determine why the term “orchestra” pops up in Midwestern Airbnb listings at a greater frequency than just about anywhere else. He notes that the region is home to a long list of top-tier orchestras, cold weather that pushes people indoors for entertainment, and a significant population of Lutherans and Lutheran institutions steeped in a tradition of classical music.

That includes, the Post notes, “St. Olaf, a Lutheran college south of the Twin Cities with music programs so famous that multiple readers wrote to cite them for the region’s classical-music compulsion.”

St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, conductor of the Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus, weighed in on the region’s connection to classical music: “Let me tell you, every time I’m inside of a funeral here in Minnesota and these folks open their mouths and sing in perfect harmony — four-parts, sometimes more — I’m like, ‘Where are you people from?’ It’s extraordinary!” he told the newspaper, comparing it with the musicality he experienced growing up in Black churches in the South. 

The Post also sought out insight from Vaughn Ormseth ’84, a music producer with American Public Media who said he came to St. Olaf to sing and stayed in Minnesota for a career in music. He linked the region’s interest in shared musical experiences with a Midwestern tradition of cooperation and community spirit.

“It goes back to the origins of the state, particularly the Scandinavians,” Ormseth told the Post. “There’s this co-op tradition, which is unusual for America, which is so individualist.”

And, of course, any conversation about orchestras in the Midwest would be remiss not to mention that St. Olaf is home to the renowned St. Olaf Orchestra. Conducted by Chung Park, the St. Olaf Orchestra is a full symphony orchestra rich in international artistry and tradition and known for its enthusiastic and passionate performances. Founded in 1906, the 92-member ensemble has been heralded as one of the finest collegiate orchestras in the country, and has twice won the American Prize in Orchestral Performances Among Colleges and Universities. The ensemble tours nationally and internationally, and will kick off its Pacific Northwest tour October 16.