By Bret Amundson
Banner Photo – Celebrating the Season Choir Concert, December 2019
In 1958, young Axel Theimer stepped foot on the campus of Saint John’s University for the first time as a 12-year-old singing with the Vienna Boys Choir.
Axel Theimer (center) as a member of the Vienna Boys Choir in the 1950’s
He cherished his time on campus and gladly returned 11 years later to serve as the director of the SJU Men’s Chorus.
Axel Theimer (right) and the St. John’s Men’s Choir in 1970
Axel has been integral to the development of choral music in Minnesota and beyond ever since, and after 52 years at CSBSJU, he is embarking on a well-deserved retirement.
Saint John’s Magazine article Singing Praise for a Legend
Axel Theimer with a group of Seniors at CSBSJU
In addition to his work at CSBSJU, Axel is the founding Artistic Director of Kantorei and the Amadeus Chamber Symphony, is a co-founder of the National Catholic Youth Choir, and has served on the faculty and as Executive Director of the VoiceCare Network. He has received the ACDA-MN Conductor of the Year Award (2001), ACDA-MN Lifetime Achievement Award (2011), and has been inducted into the Minnesota Music Educators Association’s Hall of Fame (2004).
Below is an edited transcript of a really great conversation I was lucky enough to have with my mentor, Axel.
You’re retiring after 52 years as Director of Choral Activities at Saint John’s University, you’re the founding director of Kantorei, the founding artistic director of Amadeus Chamber Symphony, and you’re the executive director and on the faculty of VoiceCare. I need a nap just reading that. You are a busy guy. What keeps you energized and excited about all of this?
The brain is a complex and not yet fully explained or explored organ. As we’ve learned more about how the brain works, our ways of teaching and learning have also changed significantly–maybe even rediscovering how effectively teaching and learning were done millennia ago. When we were younger, we were told what to do, what to learn, and how to do things. We have now come to a much clearer understanding that the brain learns is by doing, not by being told what to do! I think it’s self-perpetuating. As long as we’re curious–and don’t think we know it all–that there is an incentive that comes from within us that helps us want to stay active and keep learning!
Speaking of lessons learned, what are some important lessons you’ve learned from your time at CSBSJU?
When I was a new conductor, I thought I knew much more than I did. I was proud of that and I defended that. I came up with all kinds of assumptions–we come up with good reasons why something makes sense to us–and I got to the point where instead of continuing to be curious I started to defend my assumptions as facts. We totally forget that things are changing all the time–that our knowledge changes and the information we receive changes–and if we are stuck in just defending what we think is right, that becomes very detrimental to our own growth.
Axel Theimer 1974-75
Your final year of directing choirs has been during COVID-times, which some people might be sad or upset about. Knowing you, there is an opportunity for growth in this experience. What have you learned over this year?
My colleague at VoiceCare, Babette Lightner, has a mantra that I have come to live by:
Here I am, as I am. In the world, as it is.
If we believe this, we can face things in a totally different way than if we just continue to go on “wishing” and “should-ing” and whatever other sayings we use. If you learn to allow this way of thinking to be your guide, many of the anxieties, tensions, and frustrations we seem to experience will no longer interfere with what we have set out to do. Anytime you think, “I should have done that,” you have already wasted time that you could actually be doing whatever you want. I think so many of us spend too much time and energy thinking about all the things that we wish “we would have done” or “could have done” instead of just saying, “Okay! Here I am right now. Let’s go with it and assess after you are done to find out where you have landed…how close to the target or bull’s eye you are.”
What was your first annual salary when you came to Saint John’s University in 1969?
I would have to look back, but I think it was something my first contract was $5,500 for the year, which included a travel allowance. At that time $1 was worth about 28 Austrian Schillings, but whatever I would make at SJU was great since I had no job at home!
What’s your process for choosing repertoire?
Well, I think every conductor is going to tell you that they eventually end up choosing music that they identify with; music that speaks to them and means something to them. I also know that a piece of music can start to grow on us. We might not be sure about a piece at first, but it might become our favorite after we have had the opportunity to spend more time with it. I don’t always “like” something at first but as I delve into it, it builds meaning for me.
In the early years, I went to a music store and looked for the large bins of music and would spend two or three days, just in that store, looking through all the octavos, one piece at a time. I got to know the publishers and which publishers had music that “met” my standards or expectations, or that featured composers or a particular style I felt an affinity to.
I don’t typically choose a theme, but instead, I like to create some sort of flow–a program that develops. Sometimes it can be a thematic development, but it can also be a stylistic or harmonic development. There are so many ways one can create sequences without having to be under a “sellable” umbrella or theme.
What genre of music do you wish you could have performed more often?
I always would have liked to do more vocal jazz. The tough thing is that the majority of our students don’t have the background to do it well. The trick is to find pieces that make it doable in a relatively comfortable timeframe.
I recently found this piece called “The Long Path” by Greg Jasperse and it’s very accessible, enjoyable, and musically satisfying. One of the main challenges is to come up with a “story,” since it is a song without words. We’ve been moving and dancing in rehearsal to get everybody’s imagination going!
Is there a special performance you were at–but did not conduct–that was transformative for you in a very meaningful or memorable way?
There are so many! One of the most memorable performances was actually singing the War Requiem when Kantorei was invited to sing with the Minnesota Orchestra. There are moments in there when you are singing triple and quadruple pianissimo and suddenly the text just washed right over you. The music in these moments is draining–even though there’s barely a sound there, it just takes it all out of you.
I assume that most, if not all of us, have heard some of James MacMillan’s music. Although I have not been able to hear a live performance of his “Seven Last Words From the Cross,” the first time I heard the CD (Polyphony and London Chamber Orchestra, conducted by MacMillan), I was speechless, emotionally exhausted, stunned. The second movement is spectacular. Woman, Behold thy Son!… Behold thy Mother! describes musically (including extended moments of silence, which are not rests or pauses, but an integral part of the music) the pain, suffering, agony, yet also the unending love of a son and his mother.
How can one describe one’s deep and complete emotional reaction to the emotional language of this music? You can only allow yourself to be completely moved by it, observing the relationship that exists between “e-MOTION” and being MOVED. Words cannot adequately express our emotional reaction to any kind of music. It is in the feeling of our emotions that we allow ourselves to be swept away by. This is an “other than conscious” reaction, and it is perfect. No words can truly express or reflect it. The moment we try to put it into words, we seem to lose the true feeling or meaning. It’s important that conductors rediscover what it is like to be truly moved by music–not to try to express music, but trust that music affects us and therefore makes us expressive beings.
What do you find to be the most important aspect of ACDA?
I’ve always been a person who is interested in asking questions and learning, which is where the idea came about to create Summer Dialogue–to create opportunities for people to get together and not to be talked to, but to talk to each other and exchange ideas without feeling threatened or feeling ridiculed or feeling belittled. I’ve always been a proponent of this dialogue and that’s what keeps me involved–trying to foster an open dialogue and making it available whenever I could.
In VoiceCare, we always invite people to accept their own–as well as everybody else’s–level of ignorance, without it being a negative. There’s room for learning at any time in someone’s career and it’s exciting to look at yourself as a learner!
I’ll never forget sitting next to Ken Jennings in the Choir Room at Saint John’s during one of our first Summer Dialogues and we were having a session that investigated the different approaches that choral directors and voice teachers take to teaching singing. We had the greatest time! He was not only a phenomenal musician and choral director but also a great voice teacher who understood the voice. He combined all these areas in ways that, at the time, were not the traditionally understood ways of directing a choir.
What has changed about your teaching style over your 52 years of teaching?
I think we all start to teach the way we were taught. In German, there is a saying, “Friss Vogel oder stirb,” which translates to, “Here bird. Eat this or die.” I grew up in a boys choir tradition that was rather judgemental and said, “This is right and this is wrong.”
Axel Theimer as a member of the Vienna Boys Choir in the 1950’s
I started teaching that way and, knowing what I know now, I must have interfered with (although with my best intentions) learning, progress, and skill acquisition. What I’ve learned over the years is that dialogue, experimenting, and trying new things provide a greater learning experience and provide incredible support, stimulation, and encouragement for all learners.
What is one musical high point of your career?
If you really live by the mantra, then every musical situation you get into can turn into a learning moment and become a high point in our daily lives. It’s where you are in the moment and it’s what you are experiencing and it’s something to celebrate. I have not done some of the really big choral works, but thanks to Kathy Romey, over the years I was given the opportunity to bring my singers to join the Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Orchestra to perform pieces that were totally out of my reach and “out of this world!” There are things I’ll never forget: moments in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, moments in Brittan’s War Requiem, moments in a Mahler symphony. These moments can leave you breathless–you just stand there, almost incapable of singing because you are so moved by the emotion of the music. What a way for us to know and feel that we are alive!
Link to Legacy Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsFaGY559tc&t=2280s
Bret Amundson is the Dean of the School of Arts and Letters at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN where he also directs Bella Voce, the college’s select treble ensemble. In addition to his work at CSS, Bret is the Artistic Director for the Lake Superior Youth Chorus and the Artistic Director of the Twin Ports Choral Project. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music Education and Vocal Performance from Saint John’s University, MN, a Master of Music in Choral Conducting from Saint Cloud State University, MN, a Doctorate of Music in Choral Conducting at the University of Washington, and an MBA in Change and Leadership from The College of St. Scholastica.