By Emily Christensen
It was a performance that almost never happened, yet now will never be forgotten.
The hesitation started with the application. Dr. Lee Nelson, Wartburg Choir director and Patricia R. Zahn Chair in Choral Conducting, had every faith in his singers, but one can never be certain that a choir is ready to perform at the American Choral Directors Association national conference, the highest honor a choir can earn in the U.S.
“Many of my colleagues have applied for the national conference and never been accepted,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure, and when you are continually building the sound of a choir, it’s hard to know when you’ve arrived at that level.”
The choir’s audition CD—which included one piece from each of the last three years’ ensembles—was blindly screened by more than 80 of the country’s top choral adjudicators in late spring 2016. In the end, they chose just 25 of the 400 applicants worldwide, including the Wartburg Choir. A couple of months later, Nelson was once again questioning his decision. Another school already had selected the musical centerpiece of his program.
“The repertoire is critical to this performance, but in the end, I think it was divine intervention, because this was the reason I chose to use Raimonds Tiguls’ piece, Moonlight Sound Design,” Nelson said. Tiguls, one of only a few people in the world to play the hang drum, joined the choir for the performance at the Minneapolis conference in March.
Nelson continued to up the risk factor in his choir’s repertoire by adding Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory. The song required the entire choir to sign the chorus and included a full-song sign language solo by Samantha Hallgren ’18, a music therapy major from Arden Hills, Minn.
“I’ve never been so nervous before a concert. Standing up on stage, I knew that this would probably be a first for many of the people in the audience, and knowing that was kind of special,” Hallgren said. “I wanted to give them the best possible representation of what this was and what it meant for us to value this kind of diversity.”
Nelson said the reaction in the hall when the song was over shows just how moved everyone was by Hallgren’s passion.
“When you see this song performed, the whole choir is singing and then we cut out, and for 20 or 25 seconds we are only signing. Imagine as a choral professional if you lost your ears,” Nelson said. “It hit people so deeply on so many levels. You could hear a pin drop. It was very powerful.”
Though it wasn’t this year’s choir that earned the spot at ACDA, Nelson is confident the group represented their predecessors and the school well, adding that he has never heard this choir sing as “beautifully and emotionally” as they did during this concert.
“There were 15,000 in attendance at the convention, and at the end of our performance there was an instant standing ovation from the most critical crowd we have ever performed in front of,” he said. “I couldn’t have hoped for anything better. The Wartburg Choir ended up being the talk of the conference.”