Luther College Choir concert

The Luther College Choir performed last night at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, the third stop on their 10-concert winter tour. This is their first tour under a new conductor, Allen Hightower; alums, parents, and general choral enthusiasts in the audience had their ears turned up full throttle, to hear how he would do. Even the choir’s conductor emeritus, Weston Noble, who had led the group for fifty-four years, and had established it as one of America’s leading collegiate choral ensembles, was in attendance. A high-pressure situation for Hightower and his choir—to which he, and they, responded beautifully.

Full disclosure: I graduated from Luther myself, and taught there for three years; I know a lot about their choral program, and am inclined to admire them. That said, I have heard, and sung with, many fine ensembles since leaving Luther, and have a broader base for comparison and criticism than I once had. I expect to feel somewhat patronizing when I listen to what I assume to be naïve, sincere college students from small towns throughout the upper Midwest, singing their hearts out for lots of extra-musical reasons. I was/am one of them, and recognize the type. Then I hear them, and am struck anew with admiration, at their level of singer-for-singer individual talent, at their skill and discipline, at their commitment to creating a unified sound and approach in their music. As a unit, the choir is wonderfully balanced, top to bottom; section by section, their sound is clean, refined, rock-solid in intonation and rhythmic clarity. And their repertoire is of a higher level than one usually hears in a college choir, especially one which reflects an Evangelical religious heritage (in this case, Lutheran)—they sang Britten, Brahms, Bruckner, Gibbons, Howells, Mendelssohn, Tallis, and several other composers, with clear lines, expressively shaped text, stylistic awareness, and straightforward confidence.

Choirs like this don’t just happen. To speak of Luther and its closest peer institutions: the Norwegian immigrants who came to the United states brought a strong tradition of choral singing with them, and developed it, in their colleges, churches, and communities, as a reflection of ethnic and religious pride and identity. It was something they could do better than their neighbors, something that put them on the map, something that tied their new home to the home they had left. Every little country church and country school district had its choral program; and those singers fortunate enough to attend college tended to gravitate toward colleges founded by Norwegian Lutherans—St. Olaf, Luther, Concordia-Moorhead, Augsburg. The colleges, on their part, soon discovered that this choral emphasis was extremely important in establishing a positive public identity, in recruiting students, energizing their constituency, and raising money, and placed a very special emphasis on their choral programs. Early on, the habits of extensive rehearsal (Luther rehearses five days a week, and three hours a day during the month preceding their tour), memorized repertoire, and remarkable adherence to the guidelines and disciplines demanded by conductors, became habitual. And as these colleges have become mainstream, their choral programs have not lost these basic characteristics. Each school also has an extensive music education program, which sends graduates into the field, to prepare the next generation of singers for its choirs. And where do these singers go after they graduate from college? Many, back to small towns; many to Minneapolis and Saint Paul, which have become virtual meccas of choral music.

Nothing can replace the habit of singing well, and being surrounded by good singing, from an early age. The skills of listening, reading, producing clear tone, expressing emotion with ones body, fitting ones voice to the voices that surround one—this fluency reflects a lifetime of exposure and experience. The concert I heard Saturday was almost breathtaking in its presentation of the level to which relatively normal people can aspire, if they are carefully nurtured in the skills and spirit ,which let music thrive. As I age, I become ever more grateful to have grown up in that world, which has made my world, since, possible.