The 95-member St. Olaf Orchestra is one of the premier ensembles at St. Olaf College, a four-year liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, known for its excellence in music. Recognized both nationally and internationally, the St. Olaf Orchestra strives for the highest professional standards.
Richard Ostling of Time magazine said, “I’ve always known about the great St. Olaf Choir, but when I tuned into the St. Olaf Christmas Festival (on National Public Television) I was astonished by the music of the St. Olaf Orchestra. It has to be one of the best college orchestras in the nation.”
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 85-member ensemble has been heralded as one of the best collegiate orchestras in the country, and received the 2013 and 2018–19 American Prize in Orchestral Performance among colleges and universities.
F. Melius Christiansen, a European-trained violinist who emigrated from Norway and founded the St. Olaf College music department, established the St. Olaf Orchestra in 1906. Violin professor Beatrix Lien, a St. Olaf alumna, began teaching at St. Olaf in 1934 with seven upper strings students, and in 1946, Donald Berglund was called upon to lead the modest-sized orchestra. Through persistence, patience, and a caring presence, Berglund and Lien lifted the orchestra to remarkable heights by the time they retired in the late 1970s. A talented young conductor, David O’Dell, was hired to lead the orchestra in the fall of 1979 but was tragically killed in a car accident after only one year of service. Berglund returned to conduct until Steven Amundson was selected to lead the orchestra in 1981. Under Amundson’s baton, the St. Olaf Orchestra continued to flourish, rising to increased prominence and acclaim. He led the ensemble for 41 years until his retirement in the spring of 2022. Dr. Chung Park became the newest conductor of the St. Olaf Orchestra earlier this year, and leads them in his inaugural tour.
The St. Olaf Orchestra first toured in 1949, traveling through Minnesota and Iowa to encourage the development of high school string programs. Over the next few decades, the orchestra program grew and flourished and a second orchestral ensemble was formed in 1975, now called St. Olaf Philharmonia. Known for its enthusiasm and youthful passion while striving for the highest professional standards, the St. Olaf Orchestra pursued a more demanding repertoire under Amundson, featuring works such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Richard Strauss’s Don Juan. Often compared to professional orchestras, the St. Olaf Orchestra was heralded as one of the best collegiate orchestras by Time magazine.
Following a performance at the International Music Festival in Kosice, Slovakia in 1998, the reviewer stated: “This imposing orchestra impressed us with its discipline and enthusiasm, and extraordinary rhythmic brilliance… and mastered everything with compelling elegance and precision.” Following a 2008 performance near Madrid, Spain, a review from Musica En Alcala proclaimed: “These young United States performers presented perfectly balanced sounds, an impeccable rhythm, and a musical discipline that could be envied by any symphonic orchestra of our country.”
The St. Olaf Orchestra has toured to most of the United States, internationally throughout Europe, and to China, Argentina, and Uruguay. They have performed with world-renowned conductors and artist-performers including Robert Shaw, Kyzystof Penderecki, Leon Fleisher, and Sarah Chang. The orchestra has regularly appeared on public television as part of the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival, and on NPR, including regular features on their popular Performance Today programs.
I was astonished by the music of the St. Olaf Orchestra. It has to be one of the best college orchestras in the nation.Richard Ostling, Time
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