Hear: Anton Armstrong on Bringing the St. Olaf Choir into the 21st Century

Jan 17, 2019

Dr. Anton Armstrong, Tosdal Professor of Music at St. Olaf College, conductor of the St. Olaf Choir
Credit St. Olaf College

A Long Island teenager had a ticket to a Moody Blues concert, but his mother insisted he go instead to hear a college choir visiting from Minnesota. Eighteen years later, that young man, Anton Armstrong, became the conductor of that ensemble, the St. Olaf Choir - and as you can imagine, the details make quite a story. You can hear it from Dr. Armstrong himself in the clip below. I had a chance to interview him in advance of a concert this Sunday at 3 PM at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mason City, a part of the choir's 2019 Winter Tour.

Dr. Armstrong is only the fourth conductor of the St. Olaf Choir since its founding in 1912, and is the first African-American to hold the post. He's been there since 1990, and his career has been illustrious in other respects as well. He's an international leader in choral music, and is in demand around the world as a conductor, teacher, and clinician. He has founded several important choral groups, and he is editing a new multicultural choral series. 

The St. Olaf Choir has been a central force in choral music nationally for a century, but its heritage can make us forget its innovations. Its founder, F. Melius Christiansen, focused on developing a cappella college groups that sang with the perfect blend and tonal richness of an orchestra; as Dr. Armstrong explained to me in a clip I'll air in the future, before then, the norm for colleges had been the glee club or the oratorio society.  (Dr. Armstrong's 1987 doctoral dissertation was a definitive history of the choir up to then.) The St. Olaf Choir was also quick in exploring then-new media for reaching a wider public, notably radio. Dr. Armstrong's initiatives in diversifying the repertory and building bridges across cultures seem a perfect 21st-century continuation. As a recent dissertation by Alan Zibriskie puts it, "Under Anton Armstrong, the St. Olaf Choir expanded its repertoire and mission to include the global community."