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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]

Leadership and Service

Choir of the West Memories and Reunion

Choir of the West, c. 1944-46

Christmas performance in downtown Tacoma Bank, 1962

Europe Tour, 1963

Command performance for Norwegian Crown Prince Harald, 1970

Choir of the West, c. late 1980’s

This year the Choir of the West celebrates 75 years of a rich and memorable PLU tradition. To commemorate this anniversary, the choir, along with PLU alumni and friends, will tour Scandinavia from May 30 to June 12. Then, at PLU Homecoming 2001, October 12-14, a Choir of the West Reunion will be held and all past members will be invited to come back and rehearse under the direction of Olaf Malmin ’62, son of former director Gunnar Malmin; former director Maurice Skones, and current director Richard Sparks. On Sunday of Homecoming, a reunion concert will highlight individual choirs and the current choir under the direction of a new, yet to be named, conductor. To see more choir pictures and to find out about the reunion, visit the Choir of the West page on the alumni website at www.plu.edu/~alumni.

We have visited the PLU Archives and have selected just a few snapshots of the choir’s history. The following paragraphs are excerpts from “Educating For Service” by Philip Nordquist ’56 and “A Cappella Choirs in the Scandinavian-American Lutheran Colleges” by Paul Benson ’67.

The third Lutheran college to develop a nationally touring a cappella choir was Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, Wash. In the fall of 1925, Pacific Lutheran College, by then grown to nearly 150 students, hired a young St. Olaf graduate, Joseph Edwards, to head the music department. During the opening weeks of the 1926-27 school year, Edwards started trying out voices for the “Choir of the West,” a name suggested by an early tour manager of the choir. Despite a shortage of qualified singers, Edwards started building a choir that became respectable and even excellent in time. —BENSON

The choir traveled regularly, often sang on the radio, and was critically well received. All through the 1930s the PLC Bulletin announced the special role of the Choir of the West: “This organization enjoys the unique distinction of being the only college choir west of the Mississippi specializing in a cappella music. Mr. Edwards was our Director of Music…[he was] one time a student under F. Melius Christiansen, director of the St. Olaf Choir… [Edwards built] the Pacific Lutheran Choir into an organization worthy of this illustrious teacher.” —NORDQUIST

[Gunnar] Malmin came to Pacific Lutheran College in the fall of 1937. At first, Malmin’s efforts to keep the Choir of the West going were something of a struggle—the male student body was reduced at one point to nine. But the postwar years were a time of strong development for the choir. Malmin said of it, “I have always believed that the a cappella choir singing sacred music expresses the highest ideals of Christian higher education culturally and spiritually.” It was also a fine singing organization that profited greatly from Malmin’s flair for programming. Malmin knew his audiences and what they wanted to hear. The choir’s 1963 tour of Norway marked its peak of artistic attainment, as demonstrated by the reviews in many Scandinavian and German newspapers. —BENSON

In the fall of 1964, Maurice Skones came to PLU as chairman of the Music Department and director of the Choir of the West. Skones was well prepared for his new role, having studied choral directing under Paul J. Christiansen at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. When Skones took over the choir, he immediately put his own stamp on it. Although he was well within the historical tradition of Lutheran college choirs, he wanted to emphasize the choir as a concert ensemble. —BENSON

It was announced…that the Choir would present the world premiere of Hungarian composer Miklas Rosza’s major vocal piece, “The Vanities of Life.” Rosza, a friend of Skones, was famous as a composer of music for Hollywood movies (“Quo Vadis,” “Ben Hur,” “El Cid,” “King of Kings”), for which he had won three Academy Awards. The premiere was part of the 23 October 1965 Homecoming concert. It was a critical success. Afterward Rosza commented: “I am overwhelmed at how they sang. I had not imagined the work to be performed by memory… Mr. Skones is a true choral genius…This is one of the greatest choirs in the nation, with precision second to none.” —NORDQUIST

The cultural high point of the mid-seventies was undoubtedly the May 1974 West Coast premiere of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Passion According to St. Luke.” Penderecki is one of the best-known composers of the late twentieth century, and “Passion,” which premiered in Europe in 1967, is considered his masterpiece. According to Mooring Mast reporter Judy Carlson, it blends Gregorian chant, folk music, nonverbal choir sounds, and modified serialism in an eclectic style…The stage in Eastvold Auditorium was filled to overflowing with performers, and the total effect of the music was extraordinary. —NORDQUIST

In February 1979 the choir sang in New York City’s Lincoln Center to excellent reviews: “There are many superior college choir groups around the country, but not many of them would probably care to tackle the demanding and musically rich program of-fered by the Choir of the West…these young students from Pacific Lutheran University…not only surmounted almost every challenge splendidly, but also did [so] while singing the entire concert from memory.” —NORDQUIST

Skones was succeeded by Richard Sparks, a faculty member at Mt. Holyoke College who had been educated at the University of Washington. Sparks was the founding director of Seattle Pro Musica and had conducted the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane for three years. Sparks soon directed a triumph of his own. Benjamin Britten’s profoundly moving “War Requiem” was presented in Seattle and Tacoma on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its premiere. Included in the performance were PLU chorale ensembles, the orches-tra, the Northwest Boys Choir, a chamber orchestra, and soloists—250 people in all. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it an “inspired event”: “The credit for such polish and taste must go to Sparks. Never a showman or one to grandstand, he is a musician’s conductor. Rarely has a choir sounded so well rehearsed. Under the masterfully detailed baton of Sparks, the sections were astutely balanced, the shape of the work was clearly defined and the phrases and dynamic levels were performed with intelligence and direction.” —NORDQUIST

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