On March 1, St. Olaf Music Organization emailed the St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus members that their conductor, Professor Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, would take a leave of absence from the college. The email also let the ensembles know that information regarding the future of the semester would arrive shortly.
With Viking Chorus and Chapel Choir now having guest conductors, the number of official St. Olaf Choral ensembles without their usual conductor rose to three. Conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, Tosdal Professor of Music Anton Armstrong ‘78 began his semester-long sabbatical following the choir’s Home Concert on Feb. 17.
Ralph Johnson ‘78 was announced on March 2 to conduct Chapel Choir during Professor Wondemagegnehu’s absence in addition to his role as guest conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. In addition, Adam Reinwald ‘00 was announced as conductor of Viking Chorus.
“The practice of having guest conductors is not new to St. Olaf. Every time a faculty member is on sabbatical, for example, we have guest conductors,” said Jean Parish ‘88 in a statement to the Olaf Messenger. Parish serves as Director of College Relations for Music Organizations and served as the point person for students in the affected ensembles.
Guest conductors provide an opportunity for growth for an ensemble. However, in the case of Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus, the unexpected introduction of a guest conductor interrupts the rehearsal process for the semester already begun under Professor Wondemagegnehu. Music organizations especially noted that the change would be handled carefully so that Chapel Choir could still perform Mozart’s “Reqiuem” with the St. Olaf Orchestra later in the semester.
In addition to concerns about the influence of a guest conductor, the change to the ensemble’s attendance policy has shifted the dynamics of Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus. On March 7, Parish sent an email detailing the new attendance policy, which states that the student risked losing their ensemble membership after three absences, excused or unexcused. Previously, Chapel Choir had a trust-based attendance policy where members emailed officers if they needed to miss rehearsal. Despite these concerns, there is still hope that a guest conductor can invigorate an ensemble or classroom in a professor’s absence.
“Guest conductors bring a rich new dynamic to a group, and an interesting balance between carrying on the work of the ensemble and its permanent conductor, leading with new insights, musical ideas, and different interpretations,” Parish said. With three of the five choirs that perform in Christmas Festival under a guest conductor, the experience of Music Organizations in finding qualified guest conductors matters more than ever.
Parish remained hopeful in her statement, writing, “It should be an invigorating experience for all – the ensemble, the classroom, and the conductor/faculty member.”