Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review of Luther College Nordic Choir Winter Tour Concert

The Luther College Nordic Choir, the upper-class mixed voice touring choir of this renowned musical institution has just kicked off an extensive sixteen city concert tour of the US. Starting off in Naperville, IL  near Chicago ( I attended the concert last night, and a review is posted below), they head east, winding up in NYC (St. Bart's) and DC, then slide south into the Carolinas, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia and then head on back to wintry Iowa.

If you are close to any of their venues, listed toward the bottom of this blog, try to attend. They are under the fine direction of Dr. Allen Hightower and the program include works by Weelkes, JS Bach, Chesnokov, Casals, Mealor, Whitacre, Mulholland, and more.

Luther College Nordic Choir, Allen Hightower, director


I was very pleased to discover that the Luther College Nordic Choir (the 70 voice SATB touring choir) would kick off their winter tour in Naperville, IL not far from me. Who wouldn't want to go hear a great group like this on a cold Wednesday in January? I also was curious to hear them under their new-ish director, Allen Hightower. After Weston Noble's remarkable 57 years at the helm, and a period of five years under Craig Arnold, Hightower is now in his third year at the helm. In a very nice printed program, Hightower speaks about Luther choosing him even though he is a Texan and was an outsider to the Upper Midwest Lutheran choral tradition. I can say that this hire was brilliant. Hightower totally impressed me with his joy as a conductor (I was sitting right in front and could see his facial gestures), his technique- especially a left hand that shapes in such a gorgeous way, and his ease and gracious interaction with the audience. In regard to that amazing left hand of his, the only other conductor I have seen with one to match would be Edie Copley at Northern Arizona University (and coincidentally she happens to be a Luther grad).

Dr. Allen Hightower

For those of you who don't know the Luther College choral program, this is a small school (about 2,500 students) of ambitious undergrads. Often when we hear great choirs from big schools we are hearing some much older, more mature voices (grad voice majors, grad teaching assistants, etc) in the top choir.
The Lutheran singing tradition in Iowa, Minnesota, to some extent the Dakotas is remarkable. In addition to Luther, almost every college or university in the area fields outstanding choirs.

The concert began with Thomas Weelkes' "Hosanna to the Son of David". The singing was rich, and the phrasing clear but yet with subtlety. This was something that I loved about this choir and Hightower- I felt that the choir under Arnold had one mode of  bold, yet still warm singing and that it often sounded like a really great y'all come choir, in the sense that there was usually very little subtlety, nuance, phrasing, etc. Under Hightower every text and musical phrase  is understood, and I also felt that the singers (holding hands in the Luther tradition) really heard all the other voice parts fitting into their own throughout every measure of every piece. There was an organic, communal process happening- seventy voices as one, if you will.

This attention to organic phrasing paid big dividends in the second piece, an ms by Randall Stroope, "Verbum caro factum est". I'm not a big Stroope fan, and that probably stems from the fact that I know his signature harmonies, phrasings, and turns of melody well enough that he doesn't surprise me anymore. Yet this new piece, sung by this group really was gorgeous and deep. Hightower's baritones and tenors at times push the choir into a higher gear of resonance, nicely-energized vibrato, and volume. I loved the effect this had on a few pieces during the evening. I was able to ask him about this via e-mail today and his well-worded and thoughtful response was this:

"That's an interesting observation. I don't know that this happens intentionally. I suppose it's organic.  I can only hypothesize that as I tend to be a fan of the English choral tradition, our trebles tend to stay clean and clear into their fuller sound, whereas the men's voices tend to sing more fully/freely into the sound.  I think one tends to hear this in groups like "The Sixteen". The English women tend to have the clear boy-sound in their ear, but the men sing more heartily. I think that generally the women in the Lutheran choral tradition tend to sing a bit more on the "leaner/cleaner" side.
Perhaps this also has something to do with a search for balance that is more of a pyramid shape.  Paul Salamunovich and before him Roger Wagner talked much about building the balance from the bass up.  That's why I have more basses and altos than I do tenors and sopranos."

When the choir began JS Bach's "Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt" I sat there thinking that the sound was a bit square and boxy, but somewhere along the way the piece started dancing- wow! The next piece was Mullholland's "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name", with organ. I wrote "gonzo" in my program. Oh my, the sound was big and glorious, yet the tone was always musical.

Another highlight to me was  "Praise to the Lord" by Melius Christiansen. Hightower didn't just blast through this like most choirs do. There were lovely nuances to phrasing; he was able to bring out things I have never really noticed before. To perform a familiar "chestnut"  like this and bring something new to an audience fully familiar with the piece is a big accomplishment.

Pablo Casals' intimate, heartfelt "O Vos Omnes" was sung with great beauty. Casals would have loved to hear this performance- and we need to hear more Casals!

The concert ended with a fun rendition of the Rodgers and Hart tune "My Romance", with a very sweet solo by  Marissa Satern, Fissinger's "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "O Lord God" by Pavel Chesnokov. Hightower has the low basses in this choir to sing Russian church music such as this. I hope to hear them sing some of this repertoire in the Church Slavonic sometime. Their encore, David Schwoebel's "An Expression fo Gratitude", featured some great chops at the piano by choir member Sophia Huang.

All in all, this was an amazing program presented as a winter's night gift by these smiling, gracious young singers and their equally gracious director. The audience of about 300 was thrilled (they even displayed excellent audience etiquette- something rare these days), and the Nordic Choir tour kicked off with a bang. Try to hear them yourself if you are near any of the venues they will sing in over the next few weeks.
Bravo, Nordic Choir!


Wednesday, January 16, 2013 / 7 p.m.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Naperville, Illinois

Thursday, January 17, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana

Friday, January 18, 2013 / 7 p.m.
Peace Lutheran Church
Gahanna, Ohio

Saturday, January 19, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
Ardmore, Pennsylvania

Sunday, January 20, 2013 / 4 p.m.
Asbury First United Methodist Church
Rochester, New York

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
St. Bart’s Episcopal Church
New York, New York

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
Lutheran Church of the Reformation
Washington, D.C
Thursday, January 24, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
Hickory, North Carolina

Friday, January 25, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
The Conn Center at Lee University
Cleveland, Tennessee

Saturday, January 26, 2013 / 7 p.m.
Central Baptist Church of Bearden
Knoxville, Tennessee

Sunday, January 27, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Greenville, South Carolina

Monday, January 28, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
Palms Presbyterian Church
Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
First Presbyterian Church
St. Petersburg, Florida

Thursday, January 31, 2013 / 8 p.m.
University of Georgia Performing Arts Center
Athens, Georgia

Friday, February 1, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
Asbury United Methodist Church
Madison, Alabama

Saturday, February 2, 2013 / 8 p.m.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 / 7:30 p.m.
Luther College, Center for Faith and Life
Decorah, Iowa

Luther College Vocal Program

Luther College offers a wide variety of opportunities
for vocal music participation for young aspiring singers.

Choral Ensembles

Aurora, Dr. Sandra Peter, 90-voice first-year women’s choir

Cantorei, Linda Martin, women’s choir

Cathedral Choir, Dr. Sandra Peter, 90-voice sophomore touring choir

Collegiate Chorale, Dr. Andrew Last, 100-voice upperclass touring choir

Nordic Choir, Dr. Allen Hightower, upper-class touring choir

Norsemen, Dr. Andrew Last, 90-voice first-year men’s choir

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