Central and Mount Olive are both urban congregations solidly based in the Lutheran tradition, with vibrant worship and outstanding music programs, both with an eye to social justice and community outreach. Central’s historic place in the city – the largest neo-gothic building in North American Lutheranism – its ties with current and preceding Lutheran church bodies have made it a much visited (and much used) landmark. In addition to serving as the “cathedral church” of the old American Lutheran Church, it has hosted numerous large scale events among them the Third Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (1957), national conventions of the American Guild of Organists (1954, 1980, 2008), the American Choral Directors Association, the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, the Sixth World Choral Symposium (2002). The sanctuary has also been the venue for regular concerts by VocalEssence, Minnesota Choral, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, World Voices and Augsburg University’s annual Advent Vespers. Growing up in Minneapolis and as a student at Augsburg (then) College, I knew much happened at Central but, at the outset, was a bit unprepared for the vast administrative duties that would be required. (This, over time, was remedied by the addition of staff and reallocation of duties.)
Central has always valued music – both instrumental (especially organ) and choral. This is evident in the attention it pays to assuring there is funding for section leaders, hiring orchestral musicians for large works and, of course, its amazing instruments (the 107 rank 1963 Casavant, the Van Daalen tracker organ in the rear balcony, a Steinway and a Yamaha concert grand in the sanctuary). The main event for the dedication of the Casavant (April 1964) was a concert that included the Berlioz Te Deum with Fred Hilary on the podium, Joyce Hilary at the organ, the Central Senior Choir, children’s choir (plus two guest ensembles) and members of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. While the congregation has hosted numerous world-renowned organists, it also welcomed artists such as Maurice Duruflé under whose direction the Central Choir, with Madame D at the console, presented his Requiem at an afternoon concert in 1969 (admission $1).
Throughout my 22 years at Central I had the great pleasure of working with our “resident” Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra which began as the Central Chamber Orchestra over 40 years ago. Our partnership with these outstanding musicians flourished over the years with MSO players offering their talents when we required orchestras – large or small. Some highlights included Mendelssohn’s “Vom Himmel hoch,” Vaughan Williams’ Benedicite, Mozart’s Requiem and Coronation Mass, the American premier of Toivo Kuula’s Stabat Mater, numerous choral masses (Schubert, Mozart, C.P.E. Bach), Magnificat settings (Zelenka, Vivaldi, Bach, Buxtehude), etc.
In addition to my full-time post at Central, I maintained teaching connections both at Augsburg University and Luther Seminary. Central has deep historical connections to both institutions. Central has served as the venue for Augsburg’s annual Advent Vespers, for Luther Seminary’s graduation (and other large events). At Luther Seminary I served as a member of the chapel music staff for 26 years and taught classes in church music. My responsibilities at Augsburg have included classroom teaching (worship and church music) and conducting various choral ensembles: the Cedar Singers (TTBB), Masterworks Chorale and the Augsburg Choir (sabbatical replacement 2011 and interim conductor 2016-2018). Currently I serve as the University Organist. Outside the musical realm, Central has been home to the Augsburg Central Health Commons – a co-ministry of the University and church staffed by Augsburg nursing students and faculty that offers health care two days a week to those experiencing homelessness.
One of the things I treasure most is the outstanding group of colleagues (who became good friends) who also served downtown Minneapolis churches. Philip Brunelle (Plymouth Congregational), Bill Mathis and Mark Squire (Hennepin Avenue United Methodist), Teri Larson (Basilica of St. Mary), Lynn Trapp (St. Olaf Catholic), Jere Lanz, Melanie Ohnstad, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu and Amanda Weber (Westminster Presbyterian), and Ray Johnston (St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral). Over a dozen times we pulled our choirs together for exquisite massed choir events like the Downtown Churches Choral Festivals (first annually then biannually), the national convention of the American Guild of Organists, and the World Choral Symposium. For each Downtown Choral Festival we commissioned a choral work. Composers included Stephen Paulus, Rosephanye Powell, Gerald Near, Judith Weir, David Conte, Timothy Tkach. One year we devoted the entire concert to the music of Alice Parker who honored us with her presence and insights.
What a joy to have hosted and learned from so many choral ensembles: The Thomanerchor and the Leipzig Konzerte, the Trondheim Girl’s Choir, the Oulainen Youth Choir, the Choir of Oslo Cathedral who, under Terje Kvam presented Trond Kverno’s “Passion According to St. Matthew” (composer present), Bach Speglarna (Sweden), the Choir of St. Jakob’s Church (Stockholm), the Moscow Conservatory Choir, “Freedom Songs” (African American Musical Journey under the direction of T. Mychael Rambo), Dresdner Kammerchor and various ensembles from Tumaini University (Tanzania).
For many of his years as conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra Osmo Vänskä was a regular face on Sunday mornings at Central. When the bell tower and carillon were completed in 2006, the gift of a generous donor, the dedication was celebrated with a concert that included Mendelssohn’s “Reformation Symphony,” some arrangements of Lutheran hymns (by Osmo and other Finnish composers), the motet “En ego campana” (Jacobus Gallus/Handl) and a commission by Stephen Paulus, “When Church Bells Are Ringing” scored for choir (the Central Choir), soprano and baritone soloists and orchestra. The final movement of the four movement work incorporated the carillon’s exquisite five bell peal – announcing to all that a new musical voice was present in the city. How true this has been for Central – an amazing musical voice in the city. I am so lucky to have been a part of it. Soli Deo gloria!