Christiansen’s standard was refined and the repertoire widened under the direction of his son, Olaf, who succeeded his father and provided distinguished leadership from 1941 to 1968. He added 16th-century and modern American music to the hymn settings of the Lutheran tradition favoured by his father. Kenneth Jennings led the ensemble from 1968 to 1990, broadening the repertoire even further. He reached beyond traditional Western European music to Eastern European and Asian music. The choirs he directed were noted for nuance of phrase and artistic sense of line. He also introduced the occasional use of instruments.
Now in his 13th year as conductor of the St Olaf Choir, Anton Armstrong has built on the Jennings tradition. He has retained the healthy and free sound that he enjoyed during his own years as a member of the choir in the 1970s. He has also continued to add to the repertoire, programming more music from Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin and South America. Armstrong has also turned to contemporary young composers for new compositions and arrangements for the ensemble. Central to the mission of the St Olaf Choir is the performance of compositions of great musical integrity which are able to clearly communicate the Christian faith today. This is something Armstrong views as an inherent mission of St Olaf as a college of the church. The object, he says, “is to provide music of hope, joy, compassion and love, ranging from simple folk tunes to more complicated art-music which will sensitise the listeners’ heart and mind, as well as lift their spirits.”
Throughout its history, the St Olaf Choir has performed for capacity audiences in the major concert halls of the United States. Well in excess of 20,000 attended concerts during the 2002 East Coast tour.
The St Olaf Choir is acclaimed internationally, a result of 12 tours to Europe and Asia. In 2001, the choir travelled to Central Europe for 21-days performing in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The 1997 tour to New Zealand and Australia marked the St Olaf Choir’s first tour down under and another credit to its international reputation. In August of 2002, the St Olaf Choir built on that reputation when it participated in the Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music held in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 1993, the St Olaf Choir completed a 21-day concert tour of Norway and Denmark that included appearances at the Bergen International Festival and major concert halls in Oslo and Copenhagen. In 1988, the choir was one of only five choirs in the world invited to participate in the Seoul Olympic Arts Festival in South Korea. Two years earlier, the choir celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding with a four-week concert tour to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.
Broadcasts and recordings have spread the influence of the St Olaf Choir. The 2001 St Olaf Christmas Festival Concert titled Love Divine, Illumine Our Darkness, has been aired on nearly all of America’s public television (PBS) stations. The St Olaf Choir and St Olaf Orchestra can also be heard on a CD of the 17 November 2001 broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion hosted by writer and humorist Garrison Keillor. It was recorded on the St Olaf campus before a capacity crowd.