The St. Olaf College Choir has had four conductors in its 96-year history. By comparison, that makes the Pittsburgh Steelers head coaching position seem like it's had a lot of turnover.
In other words, the St. Olaf conducting job isn't a quick stop. And Anton Armstrong - who follows F. Melius Christiansen, Olaf C. Christiansen and Kenneth Jennings - has approached the job with passion and loyalty since he was hired in 1990.
"I was 33 when they offered me this job," Armstrong, 51, said in a phone interview from his office on the Northfield campus. "I always feel fortunate to live in this place. Lately, walking across campus, my Caribbean DNA says I shouldn't be living in this place. But it's not about sitting on your laurels, it's about how can you share this gift in a meaningful way?
The St. Olaf Choir draws from all over the country. It currently has one Brainerd lakes area representative - Tara Ritter, who graduated in 2006 from Brainerd High School. She sings in the soprano section with the choir.
"This is not my choir. For however long I'm given good health, I'm just a steward. I have a period of time to lead. And so far, my three predecessors strengthened the group and they passed it on."
The St. Olaf Choir will perform Saturday in Brainerd, one of two home-state stops before it embarks on a tour out West. Armstrong knows something about going from east to west - he grew up on New York's Long Island and decided to attend St. Olaf, naturally, because of the strong choir program. He studied under Jennings and graduated in 1978.
"The thing that got me started as a child was I grew up as a Lutheran and we had a wonderful church choral program," said Armstrong, the son of a tailor from the British West Indies and a nurse who had her roots in the Virgin Islands.
What: St. Olaf Choir.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Tornstrom Auditorium, Washington Educational Services Building, 804 Oak St., Brainerd.
Tickets: $18 (adults), $9 (students), available at stolaftickets.com and at the door.
The St. Olaf Choir draws students from all over the country. It currently has one Brainerd lakes area representative - Tara Ritter, who graduated in 2006 from Brainerd High School. She sings in the soprano section with the choir.
On the Web
For song samples from the St. Olaf Choir, visit brainerddispatch.com.
"I thought I might want to go into ministry. My mother said I'd make a great minister because I was so sinful I'd understand everyone in the congregation," Armstrong joked. "This choral music - you see how lives are transformed. It's ministry in a broad sense."
Armstrong, who conducted at a Michigan school before taking the St. Olaf post, doesn't have children of his own, but "sometimes I feel like I've had 28 years worth of kids," he said.
"The thing that's invigorating about working with a college chorus is that these young people keep us fresh. They're a challenge to reach out to, but they're amazing, especially in a community like this."
Anton Armstrong is the fourth director in the 96-year history of the choir.
Although Armstrong is the picture of dedication, his students give him a run for his money in that area.
"It's their willingness to make sacrifices in their own lives," the conductor said. "They were back here on Jan. 1 rehearsing. They gave up a week of winter break. They miss classes to tour. That might sound appealing to some folks, but these are people who pay a lot of money to go here, and (being in the choir) is a sacrifice of time and energy."
Armstrong has passed up opportunities to conduct professional choirs, and he doesn't regret staying at St. Olaf.
"You know, I'd rather produce - as we do here - great amateur singers. They bring an idealism. It's a strong hallmark here, and in Minnesota. It's something the people in Brainerd have known," said Armstrong, who has worked with Brainerd teachers and students at festivals.
Saturday's program will cover centuries of music from around the globe, and most selections will be sung without accompaniment. All of the songs were chosen for their mass appeal, but one in particular - "The Ocean of Peace" - "really does speak to a wider dimension," Armstrong said.
"I hope this sense of peace is something (my students) will find. It's a scary world in which they are about to embark. I hope this music gives them comfort and strength. Music in my life certainly has been that at the times when words alone cannot give you that calm."
JOHN HANSEN may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.
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