College choirs from northern states love to include San Antonio, Texas, in their annual tour during the winter season.
They anticipate warm, sunny hours spent on the River Walk, at the Alamo and other historic sites about which they’ve studied in history classes. In addition, balmy Gulf of Mexico breezes, accompanied by bright sunshine, often lure them to spend several hours in the surf at Mustang Island. Oblivious to the intense power of the Texas sun, fire-red sunburn is common. Looking like boiled lobsters, they have something to brag about when they return back north to Decorah, Iowa, home-base for Luther College’s Nordic Choir.
Located along scenic bluffs and rolling hills of Northeastern Iowa, the Upper Iowa River runs through the Luther College campus. The influence of immigrants from Norway who settled Decorah, beginning in the 1850s, is apparent at the school.
As of the 2010 census, Decorah’s population is a tad over 8,000 residents and is the county seat of Winneshiek County. The city is named after Waukon Decorah, a prominent Winnebago leader. Housing a large collection of Norwegian artifacts, the Vesterheim Museum is the largest Norwegian museum in the United States. In August of 2013, Forbes Magazine recognized Decorah as one of America’s prettiest towns.
This winter, arctic blasts from Canada have sent temperatures tumbling below freezing in Iowa with periodic heavy snows that accumulate to a depth of several feet. Expecting warm, spring-like weather on their arrival in Texas, the choir’s expectations are dashed by cloudy skies and freezing temperatures, mixed with droplets of icy rain.
My personal contact with Luther College is minimal, although I’ve known for many years the impeccable reputation of their internationally famous Nordic Choir. Their former, illustrious conductor, Weston Noble, is remembered with fondness. I still can visualize his quiet manner as a humble man when he mounted the podium in concert halls.
Around his neck is the St. Olav’s Medal, a gold medallion presented to him by Norway’s King Harald V, as a tribute for transmitting the Norwegian culture throughout America and the world. As emeritus professor of music, his name is still proudly listed among the college’s illustrative music faculty.
On concert day, my wife and I leave our quarters on New Braunfel’s Comal River early in the afternoon. Two long-time friends visiting us come along for the event. As usual, we allocate just enough time to enjoy bowls of hot pea soup at Schilo’s German Restaurant near San Antonio’s famous River Walk. The soup is my favorite on a cold, wintery day, especially with a side of freshly baked black pumpernickel bread.
Two large luxury coaches, in which the choir travels, skirt the street next to the stately First Baptist Church on 515 McCullogh Street where the concert is to be held. At first, we question why this site is chosen, rather than other prominent concert halls in the city. It takes little time to understand why this place is selected. In addition to recent extensive renovations, the building’s acoustics are lively and predictable -- a perfect place for choral singing.
As starting time approaches, the choir speedily strides down two aisles to take their place on stage. Seventy-five choir members, each wearing an elegant black-velvet robe, present a regal appearance. Waiting for the entry of their conductor, Allen Hightower, each member clasps the hand of the singer next to them in a spirit of solidarity and unity. Even though the choir hasn’t sung a note, they are warmly greeted with applause.
Maestro Hightower is director of choral activities at Luther College and heads a program that includes four conductors, six choirs and more than 500 singers. His professional credentials are extensive, and he is much sought after as a guest conductor for a variety of choral events beyond the Luther campus. Since he joined the music faculty in 2010, he has travelled 24 states and three European countries to conduct, perform and teach.
Though not a trained judge of musical excellence, I am amazed by the choir’s professionalism and love of singing sacred music. It is impressive to note that choir members have memorized the lyrics to each song as they sing without sheet music. Instead of peering down into a music folder, their eyes are riveted on Conductor Hightower.
Although ever easy, the Nordic Choir performs comfortably in eight parts; Soprano I & II, Alto I & II, Tenor I & II, and Bass I & II. Diction of words borders on perfection. The dynamics of sound volume is delicately controlled, especially in whisper parts or demanding forte. Precise pitch of each note prevails throughout, given either by pitch pipe, piano or organ. Well-trained soloists sing their renditions with an air of confidence and clarity.
The choir aptly demonstrates its versatility by singing a broad range of sacred music from the classics, spirituals, to more contemporary worship songs. Besides singing in English, they also sing works in German, Russian and Latin. Much of the concert is done a cappella.
For me, the most touching song in the entire program is, Entreat Me Not to Leave You, by Dan Forrest (b.1978). Based on Ruth 1: 16-17 in the Bible, it communicates the strong devotion of Naomi to Ruth, her mother-in-law. The words hit me as never before, especially when she declares, “Your people will be my people, and your God, my God; Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.” Though familiar, these words explode with new vitality.
After the closing song, an appreciative audience gives the Nordic Choir three standing ovations. I join the accolades with joyful pleasure. The music lifts my spirit and is a blessing.
Soli Deo Gloria! (to God alone be glory)
Short Bio: Frank Calsbeek, a freelance writer, lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. most of the year. During winter he resides in New Braunfels, Texas, to escape Michigan’s winter. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.