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Meet Anton Armstrong: Conductor of the St. Olaf Choir

Perhaps the most internationally known person on campus, Anton Armstrong, the Harry R. and Thora H. Tosdal Professor of Music and Conductor of the renowned St. Olaf Choir, is surprisingly down-to-earth, despite his impressive resume. “I truly believe in leading a life of worth and service,” muses Armstrong as he sits in his office, taking a few moments to reflect on his long career between one Christmas Festival preparation and the next. “This college has given me a chance to share that through music. For that I am truly grateful.”

Armstrong has certainly shared a lot of music over the years, and become well known for it. He even has his own Wikipedia page (a true measure of a cultural icon in this day and age, if there ever was one).  Besides being the director of the internationally famous St. Olaf Choir, he actively participates in countless other programs and organizations, spreading his love for music. He is the conductor of the Troubadours, a boys’ youth ensemble in Northfield, and has served on the board of numerous choral organizations, including Chorus America, Choristers Guild, the Minnesota Orchestra, Cantus, and the American Boychoir School (of which he is an alumnus).

Since 1998, Armstrong has worked at the Bach Festival, where he was influenced by Helmuth Rilling, a leading conductor in classical choral pieces. “He has influenced the way I think about music,” says Armstrong. The festival has connected Armstrong to many future Oles, including Stanford Scriven, an ’11 Ole alum whose choral composition was featured this year at the St. Olaf Christmas Festival. Armstrong is also a member of the American Choral Directors Association and the International Federation for Choral Music, both of which have brought him on as a guest lecturer around the country and globe. His lectures and guest conducting have brought him to Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and South America. Typically he is booked 12 to 18 months in advance. “But once,” he adds, “I was asked to guest conduct a choir four years in advance. Can you imagine?” 

While not working on music related business – “And trust me,” he adds, “it’s rare,” – Armstrong loves to entertain. His family primarily lives on the East Coast, so Armstrong finds solace in his friends here in Minnesota. He loves to cook, and enjoys being with his friends. “My friends say I was much crazier back in the day,” he laughs, “but I still value my time with them more than anything.” Because he travels to so many exciting places for work, Armstrong says that relaxing vacations are a necessary blessing. He enjoys traveling to warm tropical climates. “It’s in my blood to want to be somewhere warm,” says Armstrong. “As long as I’ve lived here, I am still not acclimated to the Minnesota winter weather.”

One of Armstrong’s chief responsibilities at St. Olaf is serving as the Artistic Director of the Christmas Festival each year, a process that is especially complex. The artistic committee, which consists of the ensemble directors, college pastor and a graphic design artist, begin the planning process in January of each year. One of the first things the committee does is pick a theme for the festival, a part of the process that Armstrong initiated when he took over artistic direction in 1990. Before that, the ensemble directors would choose music and then try to pick a theme that worked with the songs they wanted to do. “By picking the theme first, we ensure that a strong message is truly portrayed to the audience,” says Armstrong. “We take a strong look at what people need to hear. It’s about what will bring people to experiencing the true meaning of Christmas. Each year is a little different.”

This year’s festival, Rejoice, Give Thanks, and Sing celebrates what Armstrong says he believes has made the Christmas Festival so special over the past 100 years. Some of the songs are old favorites, and others are composed by former St. Olaf faculty and students. But other pieces celebrate where the choirs are going. “We wanted to celebrate the past without making it a museum piece,” says Armstrong. This means that there are plenty of new songs in the program, including pieces that involve dance or ethnic qualities, and others that were commissioned especially for the centennial.”

Despite his many accomplishments, Armstrong remains truly humble, giving full credit to the places and people that brought him to where he is today. His biggest inspiration remains his parents, especially his mother, Esther, who he says shared her love of singing with her son and brought him to church to sing in the choir when he was six. This heritage influences Armstrong to this day. One of the Christmas Festival pieces that the St. Olaf Choir sings is based off a West Indian carol (where Armstrong’s parents are from). He spent two years of his adolescence at boarding school, singing in the American Boychoir, in which he toured around the country and abroad in Italy. He was even given the opportunity to sing in front of President Nixon, a memory that he was able to re-live when the St. Olaf Choir performed at the White House for President George W. Bush. “I remember walking into the room where I had performed so many years ago, and I thought, ‘My, it’s gotten much smaller!’” laughed Armstrong. The American Boychoir also gave him his first opportunity to conduct, an experience that ignited his passion for singing.

When Armstrong came to St. Olaf as a student (he graduated in 1978), he found himself under the direction of Robert Scholz in both Chapel Choir and in private voice lessons. He then spent the remainder of his career at St. Olaf in the St. Olaf Choir under the direction of Kenneth Jennings, in whose steps he would eventually follow as conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. Other major influences in his educational career include Dr. Harold Decker at the University of Illinois (where Armstrong received a Master of Music degree) and Dr. Charles K. Smith at Michigan State University (where he earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree).  He says that today his colleagues at St. Olaf, both in the music department and across the campus inspire him with their strong leadership and support for the arts. “I work with a wonderful, renowned faculty,” he says. “Dr. Ferguson is a wonderful collaborative partner, Sigrid Johnson has, perhaps, the best ears in the business, Christopher Aspaas has an amazing energy, and Steven Amundson knows how to draw the best out of young players.”  

When it really comes down to it, Armstrong enjoys teaching at St. Olaf because of these co-workers and faculty. “This school is the model for other schools in the choral arts,” he explains. “It’s exciting to be at a college that people recognize as an exemplar for inspiration.”

Armstrong has an obvious passion for the St. Olaf community and what it embodies. “St. Olaf has bright, hardworking students that are more than intelligent,” he says. “They are willing to be challenged. They have that strong, mid-West work ethic, and are a constant source of inspiration.”

These students will prove this dedication at this year’s Christmas Festival. “The program embodies what we’re all about,” says Armstrong. “Rejoice for what we have, give thanks for what we’ve been given, and sing in adoration. After all, that’s what we do. We sing.”

Jessica is a senior at St. Olaf College majoring in English with concentrations in media studies and Middle Eastern studies. As one of the Campus Correspondents for Her Campus St. Olaf, she enjoys writing and editing news stories, and encouraging younger Oles to express their skills and talents through writing. She also is an editor for the school's student newspaper, The Manitou Messenger, and a writer for the college's marketing and communications office. In her (limited) free time, she enjoys eating pita and hummus from the Cage, curling up in a Buntrock window seat with a good book, and checking things off her senior bucket list.
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