Originally published in the 2017 Spring Quarterly Explorer
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
— Leonard Bernstein
These words Leonard Bernstein wrote on the day of the assassination of President John Kennedy still ring true today. In times of uncertainty, upheaval, or pain, we turn to music for hope, solace, and the reminder that beauty still exists in our world. The St. Olaf choir gave me such a reminder on February 3, 2017.
When you are a choral musician, you don’t get to be in the audience very often. So, that night, I got to the sanctuary early enough to grab the seats I wanted, the front row center of the balcony. I was so excited, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, or leaning over the railing until the concert began. It was so fun to see and greet my musical friends from all over Richmond’s musical world from music ministers to symphony choir singers. St. Olaf is an opportunity not to be missed.
I looked through the program, excited for pieces I knew (Shenandoah by James Erb for example, a must for a Richmond stop), and pieces that I didn’t know (a piece with text by Sylvia Dunstan, and a piece commissioned by a hospital).
Then the concert began.
The choir came out with their bright purple robes and the singers began to grasp each other’s hands as they got into place. I had never seen a choir do this before. I thought maybe it was just for their first piece. But no, the choir held hands each time they sang. They moved as well, not in a choreographed fashion, but back and forth in a way where the movement was organic, pouring out of them as they sang, changing slightly with each piece from Bach to Brahms to Moses Hogan.
My favorite piece was by John Ferguson, former Professor of Organ and Church Music at St. Olaf. He set a text by Sylvia Dunstan for choir and viola. The piece creates the mystery and depth when asking the question: “Who is this who walks among us? Who is this who speaks such words? Is it Moses, or Elijah, or some prophet of the Lord?” The music from this question then got higher, out of the depths as the previous question was answered: “You are Christ, from God eternal! Who is this? Hidden, holy one.”
The piece I heard the most conversation about was “This House of Peace.” The piece was commissioned for the 2008 opening of Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend in Springfield, Oregon. The text of the piece came from words of actual patients and family members who stayed at Sacred Heart’s family guest house. From the composer: “In these performances, tenor and soprano soloists sing the words of the patients/family members- including a young single mother, the spouse of a seriously ill patient, and the parent of a trauma victim. The prayer, sung by the full choir, serves a chorale-like function for each solo section- intimating the sacred nature of the relationship between those who offer care and those who seek it, and the holiness of each ‘house’ in which such care is given.”
It was a privilege to hear the St. Olaf Choir and conductor Dr. Anton Armstrong. Dr. Armstrong spoke at the end of the concert saying that he had made this program out in October before he knew the results of the presidential election or how divisive our country would become. He said it was his hope that in hearing the music and hard work of his students, that we would take away a message of love and hope. That we should love everyone in our world: our neighbor, the sojourner. That we would do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. If we tried to do those things, Armstrong said, then they had done their job well. The beauty and depth of their music was a motivator to me to indeed make music more beautifully, and to love all my neighbors. Thank you St. Olaf Choir, for such a timely message.