By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, Feb. 26, 2018 — For choir singers, even old former ones like me, Sunday afternoon’s concert here by the Concordia College Choir, from Moorhead, Minn., was probably at least a “bucket list” experience.
The 72-voice choir, directed for 32 years by Rene Clausen, is regarded by many to be the best college choir in the world.
Their concert at Plymouth United Church of Christ was the first time I’d ever heard the Concordia Choir perform in-person, although like most of you, I’ve been hearing them for years doing their Concordia Christmas Concerts, which are broadcast nationally on public TV & public radio.
They are, whether singing on the air or right in front of you, nearly perfect. They’re so good that, at the end of one number, they will leave you breathless in sad reflection. Then they’ll give you a great and joyous spiritual lift with some rousing anthem, probably Lutheran, since Concordia is an ELCA-affiliated school. And another way to measure which song they do best is which one sends the most tears streaming down your cheeks.
A word on a couple of those songs Sunday.
The one that left us breathless and sad was “Out Of Darkness Let Light Shine,” which the choir is premiering on this tour for composer Joshua Clausen, a 36-year-old Concordia alumnus and the son of director Rene Clausen. It opens with a recorded “sonification” of solemnly-toned beeps, each of them representing one mass shooting in America from January 2012 to November 2017. That goes on, in darkness, for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, as the choir begins softly singing over it, from the depths of their hearts and souls. Then they add the moan of half-filled water glasses being gently stroked by some of the singers. The composition has five parts, which takes listeners from despair to soaring inspiration on “This Little Light of Mine,” and who was the soloist? Leaving him unnamed is cruel, but wholly Lutheran. In the end, this haunting full piece leaves you 1) somehow feeling the horrible full shock of just how much gun violence we’ve suffered in this nation, and 2) especially so in this week after one of our worst mass shootings ever, the one at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Florida, which obviously happened long after this composition was completed.
Right near the end of the concert, its grandest moment occurred, the one that had my tears streaming. It was on an absolutely simple and lovely arrangement of “Jesus Loves Me” — yes, the old childhood hymn — by the Concordia director Clausen. The impact of having one of the best choirs in the world singing that right in front of you was, well, overwhelming. I loved it.
Then they ended with a staple of the great a cappella choirs — especially the Lutheran ones — “Beautiful Savior” by F. Melius Christiansen, who led the exceptional St. Olaf College Choir in Minnesota for decades. Featured was another anonymous soloist, this time an alto, and I am certain we’re going to be hearing from her for decades to come, whoever she is.
Three more quick stories about the Concordia Choir:
–Director Clausen graduated from St. Olaf, where he surely was one of the great singers in that choir, and then went on to get his graduate degrees from the University of Illinois. At UI, where he was a graduate assistant working with the undergraduate singers, he encountered a freshman by name of Ben Allaway. “Rene told me that Illinois had a fine choir,” Allaway told me, “but that in his opinion back then, there was only one great choir — St. Olaf. He took me along when he attended a St. Olaf concert held in Chicago, and I decided right then to transfer.” So Allaway, now an internationally-known composer working from Des Moines, became an “Ole” himself. And Sunday afternoon, there he was sitting five rows north from where his old mentor was directing his great Concordia Choir.
–I think it was in the early 1990s when I first became aware of the Concordia College Choir. Garrison Keillor, long before he became the bad boy of public radio, had his weekly “A Prairie Home Companion” in high gear back then. He would occasionally take the show to Concordia College and the show would become what he called the “Prairie Home Festival Hymn Sings,” and they always sounded so grand. It was like every pitch-perfect Lutheran in Minnesota was singing to us over the radio. And, as I understand the layout, there is a cemetery right across the road from the Concordia campus in Minnesota. The name of it: “Prairie Home Cemetery.” And yes, that inspired the name of Keillor’s old show.
–All us Iowans, of course, believe that the late Weston Noble’s “Nordic Choirs” at Luther College in our town of Decorah were, and probably still are, the equal of the terrific Minnesota choirs at St. Olaf, Concordia and maybe we should include Augsburg, too. And, hello, our Wartburg College Choir is darned good, too. In my roaming around Iowa for the Des Moines Register, I would often stop for coffee or lunch with Noble when I was driving through northeast Iowa. I’ll never forget him just bubbling with excitement on one of my stops. He told me that his Nordic Choir would be on the same upcoming program with the St. Olaf and Concordia choirs. It was going to be like the Lutheran A Cappella Dream Team. What really had him juiced was that whatever concert hall they were going to use — can’t remember whether it had 1,700 seats or maybe even more than that — “sold all the tickets in two hours!” he gasped. “You’d have thought it was a rock concert!” But as Noble knew, great choir music sells. It has for centuries.
O.K., since I’ve gone on this long, there is one more thing you need to know about Concordia College. Their sports teams, which play in NCAA Division III, are the “Cobbers.” And the mascot dresses like an ear of corn. How are we Iowans letting a Minnesota school get away with having a nickname and mascot like that?
Oh, now one more thing. Plymouth Church in Des Moines was the second stop on this Concordia Choir tour, which is rolling with two buses and a straight truck. The itinerary has them doing 15 concerts in 15 different cities in 16 days, all the way to Texas and back. That may be the most athletic thing any Concordia students have been involved in all school-year long.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.