March 9 2011 12:00 AM

Globetrotting St. John’s Chorus makes a stop in Lansing during national spring tour



Giant sequoias soak up Pacific Northwest mist. Buffalo bulk up on Great Plains grass. How did vast choral reefs form in the heart of Minnesota?

When the 46-voice St. John’s University Men’s Chorus rattles the apses and naves of Lansing’s First Presbyterian Church Saturday, local music lovers will have a chance to witness one of America’s regional wonders without hitting the interstate.

Minnesota, home to over a dozen world-renowned choirs, is so oral it’s even shaped like a wide-open mouth. The St. John’s male chorus, one of the state’s cultural jewels, has made Lansing part of its annual spring break tour for three years.

St. John’s choirs have won awards and impressed audiences from Salzburg to Beijing, but being very good is just a tool for choral director Axel Theimer.

“We get to a level of performance where it just pours out of you and becomes a reflection of your emotions,” Theimer said. “I hope they continue singing the rest of their lives because of their experience with this group.”

Discipline is key to the choral art, but St. John’s is no fortissimo Presidio of boot-camp sacrifice. The idea is to blend life and music until one seems impossible without the other.

Only a handful of choir members are music majors.

“That’s what I like best about it,” Theimer said. “They enjoy doing it. I get them to a point where I want them to experience as intensely as possible all the things music can do for us.”

Theimer wants his singers to have a life. Members can miss one rehearsal a week, if classes or family matters conflict. But when you’re singing, autopilot is not an option.

“If you enjoyed performing a piece once, and it worked really well, you cannot try to do it the same way again,” he said. “Every time you perform, you create.”

Born in Vienna, Theimer came to Minnesota in 1958, as a member of the touring Vienna Boys’ Choir. He had no idea he’d still be here 53 years later.

“I don’t know what my plan was,” he said. “I didn’t even time to get a regular emigration visa.”

But the open mouth of Minnesota has swallowed many a vocal music maven.

By the 1950s, the state was already uvula-deep in the a cappella choral tradition that began with the St. Olaf’s choir, founded in 1912 by Norwegian violinist F. Melius Christiansen. The St. John’s chorus was originally organized in 1948.

“A hundred years ago, it was pretty novel,” Theimer said. “Now you look around and  see all 15 private colleges in Minnesota have phenomenal choral programs.”

St. Olaf’s graduates seeded the state with strong high school music programs, nourished by the strong vocal tradition of the Lutheran church.

Impressed by the vocal culture around him, Theimer decided to join the St. John’s group and cast his lot with the New World on the “spur of the moment.”

“The whole thing was so quick,” he recalled. He had no idea how long the association would last.

“I thought, if I stay here for a couple of years and it doesn’t work out, nobody can take the experience away from you.”

But the international choral world has a competitive side, much like pro sports. When St. John’s snagged Theimer’s director in the Vienna Choir Boys, Gerhard Track, as vocal music director, it was like the upstart American Football league signing quarterback Joe Namath. (Think of Europe, with a centuries-old choral history going back to medieval chant, as the hoary NFL.)

When Track left St. John’s for Pueblo, Colo., in 1969, he recommended Theimer as a replacement.

“I was barely a couple of years older than the students,” Theimer said.

By then, Track had already run the chorus through competitions in Germany and Austria, the heart of the Western choral tradition.

With prizes and recognition came growth. Now Theimer takes 60-voice groups overseas, choosing from three choirs, including the men’s chorus.

On international tours, students pay their own way. The group toured the Far East in 2005. Last May, Theimer took his expeditionary force to Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The group packed a downtown Vienna church on Pentecost Monday, but Theimer was stunned when the chorus was invited to sing at Salzburg’s once-a-year Night of the Church.

“It was standing-room — people were just wild,” Theimer said. “How inspiring for the choir when you walk in and see this.”

Theimer said European audiences clamor most of all for spirituals. “We do quite a bit of wonderful folk song and spiritual arrangements, so they get a bit of Americana,” Theimer said.

But the chorus also did longhair stuff like Benjamin Britten’s tricky, magical “Festival Te Deum.”

On any tour, European or domestic, the group brings a top-notch organist along, and that came in extra handy in central Europe.

“The organs you get over there — you might as well use them,” Theimer said.

After hitting Lansing, the current St. John’s tour moves on to points east, including Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C..

The repertoire includes about two dozen choral gems, many by little-known composers. At the start of Saturday’s concert, the chorus will infiltrate the audience to sing the traditional Kenyan “Wana Baraka.”

After that, the music runs a huge gamut, from U2’s “MLK” and Rene Clausen’s "At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners," to Jackson Berkey’s “Ascendit Deus,” a contemporary piece based on Gregorian chant.

Theimer said the singers really get into one of the more emotional works, Mark Templeton’s “When I Hear Her I Have Wings,” inspired by the words of poet Mary Coleridge.

“We have to have a couple of tearjerkers,” Theimer said. “We have so many men there, you need a love song.”

St. John’s University Men’s Chorus

8 p.m. Saturday, March 12 First Presbyterian Church 510 W. Ottawa St., Lansing Free, but donations are accepted (517) 482-0668 Mens-Chorus.htm