Choir program undergoes changes

The university choirs will transition from three groups to two larger choirs this fall, with new directors for each.

After the establishment of the School of Music in 2020, the department decided on a three-prong leadership structure, which would include a dean and two directors.

Dean Peter Folliard accepted Provost and Executive Vice President Colin Irvine’s and the human resources department’s recommendation to appoint professor Russell Svenningsen as director of vocal studies. Professor Christopher Unger was appointed director of instrumental studies.

As part of the new structure, Folliard decided to rethink the way the choir groups were arranged.

“‘How do we grow?’ is the whole question that we’re charged with in the Viking Bold strategic plan, so this is looking at it and saying, ‘I don’t think we’re poised for growth with this model, so let’s change that,’” Folliard said.

Currently there are three choral groups. The University Chorale and the Augustana Choir feature all vocal ranges, and Angelus is for treble voices, which are typically female. Professor Paul Nesheim currently directs the Augustana Choir, Svenningsen leads the Chorale and professor Lisa Grevlos is head of Angelus.

Next year, the plan is to merge the Augustana Choir and the University Chorale. Folliard said this will solve a problem they’ve faced with the distribution of different vocal ranges. 

“It’s not just a numbers game, but it is a treble and bass makeup game,” Folliard said. “The ratio currently of treble to bass singers is three to one. It should be balanced soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Shifting to this model allows us to immediately hit that ratio.”

Folliard said this will also help grow the program under the School of Music.

“I think these changes are going to help us,” Svenningsen said. “They’re going to position us in such a way that we can best utilize the resources we have now, so that down the road, we can help realize the goals of the institution as laid out in the Viking Bold strategy for 2030, and that is growing the program. In five years I’d like to see 150, maybe 200 singers in the program. That would be thrilling.”

As part of the restructuring, Svenningsen will now direct the Augustana Choir, and Nesheim will direct Angelus, according to Folliard.  

“Dr. Svenningsen is unbelievably talented and charismatic,” Folliard said. “He is a dynamic singer, he’s got a dynamic personality and his interest in diverse repertoire is really fascinating. There’s that side of this, that I’m really excited for his leadership.”

Folliard said Nesheim’s degree in conducting was part of the reason he was selected for Angelus. For Svenningsen, Folliard said it made sense as part of the new school to have the director of vocal studies also be the director of the largest choir.

“I’m looking forward to bringing about a lot of diversity in the repertoire, lots of different voices, lots of different styles,” Svenningsen said. “I look forward to walking through the challenge with the singers together and performing everything from gospels of vocal jazz to Renaissance polyphony and the latest and greatest choral music from all sorts of different voices that are out there right now.”

Current choir students were notified of these changes on Feb. 25. At the time, an email said that the two choirs would be combined and that Svenningsen would take over the merged Augustana Choir. No note was made of who would direct Angelus. 

“We haven’t heard anything from the directors at all about how that’s going to change, if Grevlos is going to still be director or if Nesheim’s going to take over,” said Jessica Kratz, junior Angelus vice president. “I know after they kind of sent out the email announcing the changes, the next time we had choir, someone asked about it, and we didn’t really get a whole lot of answers. We were basically just told to refer back to that email. I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going on at this point.”

Kratz said she saw Nesheim’s name listed in course registration as the director for Angelus, but that students were never officially told who would be directing. She also said she’s heard concerns about how the restructuring will impact possibilities for female or treble vocalists.

“There’s going to be two options instead of three,” Kratz said. “So there’s a little bit less opportunity for growth there. You’re either in the top one or the lower one. And then for our bass voices, the male voices, they only have one option. So, they’re automatically in the top choir.”

Folliard said there will still be a chamber choir, which is a select group of elite singers from the Augustana Choir, to maintain another level for achievement. Svenningsen will also lead this choir.

“I’m in this for the students,” Svenningsen said. “It’s about the students and their experiences and their education, and so I like to think that I’m a good sport and that I’m working very hard to stay on the edge of these sorts of things. We want to be leading the charge.”

  1. Good story, Olivia.

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