This spring, Magnum Chorum is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season, having been founded in 1991 with a mission to transform audiences through artistry and spirit.
“We were deeply inspired by the legacy of Dr. Kenneth Jennings, who had a profound influence on many of us in college as the third director of the St. Olaf Choir,” says Martha Kunau, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the choir. She adds, “Ken had an extraordinary ability to draw the music out of us until it was perfectly blended. He instilled in us a desire to continue singing at the highest level of musical expression, while singing with joy and offering a message of faith. It’s in our DNA.”
The 25th anniversary milestone has arrived just as Mark Stover is culminating his second season as Artistic Director of Magnum Chorum. “I felt drawn, even called, to lead this choir,” says Stover, “because my values align so deeply with Magnum Chorum’s core values of musical excellence, sacred music and faith, fellowship, and stewardship. Even though this is the choir’s twenty-fifth year of bringing beautiful music to our community, in some ways, we feel like we are just getting started.”
While the choir’s mission remains the same under Stover’s leadership, he endeavors to offer more innovative programming, pursue the music of young and emerging composers, and expand the choir’s service to the community.
Says Stover, “Our mission to transform audiences through artistry and spirit remains our inspiration today and empowers everything we do. It speaks to the quality of the music we strive to offer, and to the spirit of joy and humility that we hope shines through and can touch listeners deeply.” Stover adds, “However, we are discerning new ways to enrich our programs, and thinking about how we can embody our mission in expansive new ways while reaching those in our community who need to hear this music and its message.”
One of Stover’s passions is creative concert programming that inspires audiences and singers alike. “Lately,” he says, “I find myself seeking renewed inspiration in the concert-going experience. So often we hear the same music over and over, offered in a similar format. I’m looking for ways to break the mold in programming and form, to enliven the choral concert experience, and to make it as accessible, fresh, and inspiring as possible.”
Stover harnessed this innovative spirit as he programmed the recent “My Song in the Night” concert this past March. He decided to experiment with repertoire and pacing by inviting the singers to audition, in solos and small groups, with pieces inspired by the concert theme. He asked the singers, “What is your song in the night?” Members of Magnum Chorum auditioned their pieces, and the chosen works — ranging from music by Grieg, an Irish folk song, American pop music, and an original work with guitar and violin written by one of the singers — were woven throughout Stover’s program of traditional and contemporary choral works.
In a tribute to the life and legacy of Dr. Kenneth Jennings, the concert was dedicated to Dr. Jennings, and three of his Spiritual Songs were included in the program.
Audience response to the program has been overwhelming. Stover says, “We are still hearing from many listeners that it was their favorite concert of all time. We are both humbled and encouraged by this, and it will help fuel our creativity going forward.”
Singer and bass section leader Benjamin Simmons echoes Stover’s sentiments. “What excites me is the blend of the old and new. Each of our programs incorporates something new, and stretches the bounds of what our audience is comfortable with. We take what they know and love and keep coming back for, and give them something new to think about. It provides a rich experience for both the listener and singer.”
In addition to encouraging young and emerging composers to hone their craft through Magnum Chorum’s Composer-in- Residence program, Stover also wants to expand the choir’s mission by reaching underserved populations, “and bringing music of hope and joy into places where it is so desperately needed,” says Stover. He was inspired by an alto in Magnum Chorum who shared her sister’s account of visiting a prison in Texas with her choir. “Her story was profoundly moving,” says Stover, “and I knew instantly that we could make a difference here in Minnesota’s prisons and shelters for people in need.”
To that end, Magnum Chorum recently visited the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, which is a women’s prison. There the choir members met the Voices of Hope, the newly formed women’s prison choir, shared lunch, and visited before Magnum Chorum sang two concerts for about 170 inmates. The two choirs also joined together to sing “Shenandoah,” and Voices of Hope sang “How Can I Keep from Singing” for Magnum Chorum. Emotions ran high for everyone present.
According to Amanda Weber, director of the Voices of Hope, “It was a transformative experience for everyone involved: for Magnum Chorum, who felt unexpectedly served by the women, and for the women in Voices of Hope, who really felt what it was like to add their voices to a larger group, and felt like they were able to escape the walls of the prison. They felt genuinely accepted and loved in an unexpected way. One of the women described our experience as ‘the entire gym where we were singing just felt like love.’ ”
Nate Raabe, Magnum Chorum tenor, agrees. “When we sang at the prison, it was a very interesting and dynamic experience that I am still processing. I am a high school music teacher, and I told my students that I have never sung for a more appreciative audience. But what surprised me was when everyone in the gym was singing “Amazing Grace” together, I felt more connected to complete strangers than I have ever felt before. “
Mark Stover is invigorated and excited about building on Magnum Chorum’s choral legacy. “It is exhilarating to be thriving in our 25th season,” says Stover, “and I cannot wait for the next 25 years of amazing music. Next season, composer Jake Runestad and I are programming Magnum Chorum’s fall concert together; next spring, the choir will present a groundbreaking new oratorio, Sermon on the Mount, composed by Paul John Rudoi; we will have one or two young Composers-in- Residence; and we look forward to growing in our offerings for those in prisons and shelters.” He gushes, “How can we keep from singing?”