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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton choir embarks on tour for first time in ten years


When Matthew Olson joined Carleton as the Director of Choral Activities in 2017, the choir program at Carleton had dwindled down to seven people. Naturally, Olson sought to grow the weakened choir into a more welcoming and expanded program. Many changes have been made over the past five years and the choir program now boasts a 65-voice Carleton choir, as well as a 24-voice chamber choir and a jazz choir led by jazz professor Laura Caviani.

Singers voiced their discontent with the choir program in a 2015 Carletonian article, citing “lack of follow through and irregular rehearsal practices,” as well as a “lack of cohesion within the choir.” 

After joining Carleton, Olson immediately set out to remedy these issues. On how he approached making these changes, he said: “As choir singers, we have the immense privilege of being storytellers. Therefore, I believe a choir program should express the defining values and aspirations of the community which it is a part of. To do this with the authenticity and expressivity that great artistry requires, we’ve prioritized constantly improving the choir environment so that all Carls feel welcomed, included, supported, heard and cared for.”

Among the changes that Olson enacted are “changing choir rehearsal language and concert wardrobe to be gender neutral, ensuring there are no costs for choir activities, including tours, welcoming guest speakers to facilitate important dialogues surrounding religion, race, and cultural appropriation in choir music, and ensuring that we expand our repertoire to include music and poetry by people who have historically been excluded in choral music, including those who identify as LGBTQ, BIPOC, disabled, refugees, and the economically disadvantaged.” Olson also started welcoming more student feedback about the structure of the choir program, including length and frequency of rehearsals, styles of music performed and how to best “approach diverse songs and stories with the utmost integrity and respect.”

Although the majority of the rebuilding of the choir program occurred before Tate Russell ‘23 joined his freshman fall, he has great appreciation for the work that Olson put into revitalizing the program and has thoroughly enjoyed his time in the choir. “Something that I really love about our program is that it has a pretty low barrier of entry. There are people for whom Carleton Choir is their first ever choir, or for whom this is their first time singing publicly, and others who have grown up singing in ensembles and performing regularly.” 

Perhaps exemplifying the choir’s newfound vitality and life,, the Carleton Choir will embark on a tour over spring break, beginning with a send-off concert in Kracum Hall on Saturday, March 4. The last time the choir toured was about ten years ago. They will travel to Madison, Wisconsin, for one day to perform in the Atrium of the First Unitarian Society. They will subsequently spend three days in the Chicago metro area performing at the historic 4th Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue, engaging in educational collaborations, observing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and finally performing in Evanston, Illinois. 

Madison and the Chicago area were selected for three reasons: They are communities with a strong Carleton alumni base and love for choral music, they are close enough to take a bus instead of plane and the enriching arts opportunities that Chicago offers.

Expanding further on his appreciation of the variability of choral experience in the Carleton Choir, Russell said it “makes me even more appreciative of the upcoming tour, because it’s something which is new to many of our members. It gives us a really meaningful way to interact with the choir program, and gives a bit of a real-world feel to our experience in the ensemble, which is great.”

Olson summarized some of the pieces that the choir will perform: “works by leading, living composers Sydney Guillaume and Reena Esmail; both interweave classical music language with sounds of their native countries (Haiti & India, respectively). We’ll perform a powerful setting of Langston Hughes’ poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ by Margaret Bonds. Ms. Bonds was one of the first female Black Americans to break through barriers of sexism, racism and classicism to have a career as a professional concert pianist and composer. We share arrangements of indie Rock and Folk ballads by Fleet Foxes and Saro Lynch-Thomason. And we’ll sing choral gems by composers including Faure, Brahms and Whitacre.”

The choir’s kick-off concert will be Saturday, March 4, 2023, at 7 p.m. in Kracum Hall. All are invited to attend. 

Photo credits to Harry Pound.

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