Review: Song and sweaters, a St. Olaf spectacle

There’s something about St. Olaf College, with its crisp, clean , orderly campus perched above Northfield, its simple limestone buildings like Lego creations, that brings out the Nordic Lutheran in everyone. And everyone, it seems, with a drop of Scando in them comes out for the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, a 97-year-old tradition begun by F. Melius Christiansen, a Nordic Lutheran if there ever was one and the founder of the college’s famed music department.

Hours before the afternoon performance on Sunday, hordes of alumni, parents of students, and other concert-goers piled into Buntrock Commons, the sleek new student center, for a Scandinavian buffet ($17.83 per person–how’s that price for Nordic precision?) Shuttle buses ferried people down to Skoglund Athletic Center for the show. And unless you were among the lucky few who acquired tickets, you stood in line with several hundred other people for rush tickets–we waited for two hours and still received just two seats together; the other three were widely scattered). This festival is just that popular.

Was it that good? The festival has been broadcast live for some time now on Minnesota Public Radio, and last year the school began simulcasting the show to dozens of movie theaters for fans who couldn’t make it in person. St. Olaf’s reputation as a choral powerhouse goes back decades, and it’s long been a feeder school for nearly every vaunted chorus in town, from Dale Warland’s former ensemble to the Rose Ensemble to VocalEssence to Cantus, the popular male classical group whose founders met at Olaf. One could easily argue, too, that the Lutheran choral tradition–refined at places like Olaf, Luther College, Gustavus Adolphus, and other schools–has made Minnesota the country’s choral hotbed. Along with nailing their grievances to church doors, Protestants love to sing. And nowhere in the world, perhaps, is that more apparent than at the St. Olaf Christmas Festival. All five of St. Olaf’s sanctioned choruses filled the rear of the the gymnasium–I counted nearly 400 singers–beginning the concert by surrounding those seated on the main floor, a sort of Olaf surround sound. It was moving, powerful, even heavenly. Most engaging were several of the newer carols from other countries–part of director Anton Armstrong’s somewhat controversial push to diversify the music–including a bouncy calpyso number. On several occasions, the audience was asked to sing along, and nearly everyone appeared to do so, even–or especially–when the lyrics were in Scandinavian languages.

The Nordic Lutheran vibe, however, was what made the spectacle uniquely Minnesotan. It begins with the fact that easily half the concert-goers uphold a tradition of wearing Nordic ski sweaters to the show. You imagine that many of them in fact skied in from Northfield. Then there are the hard bleachers and folding chairs comprising the seating–the next best, or at least hardest, thing to the classic wood pew. And naturally, despite being two hours long, there is no intermission–deal with it.

One is reminded, sitting for the most part in partial darkness, that Advent and Christmas Eve, among Lutherans, is not the time yet to tell it from the mountain, despite that number being among the selections. There was a solemnity, a sober if auspicious cast, to the majority of the performance that is aided by the Lutheran tradition of blending voices–no one sticks out, the way they deliberately might in a black Baptist choir, for instance. (Nails sticking out, in true Scando fashion, will be tapped down.) The result is like an icy lake in winter–uniform, smooth, and shimmering.