The choral tradition at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., is one of those durable, solid and dependable realities, like I.F. Stone's erudition and Art Buchwald's humor. At the turn of the century, when most college glee clubs were still crooning close harmony, F. Melius Christiansen had his singers dedicated to better stuff, and now, 80 or so years later and performing under Kenneth Jennings, only the third conductor in its long history, the St. Olaf Choir is still among the best in the country.
Monday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the choir gave an almost full house a lessson in what complete dedication to the basic choral virtues of intonation, rhythm, balance and diction can do. The program included motets by Schutz and Bach and a Coronation Anthem by Handel, motets by Poulenc, Durufle, Penderecki and Nystedt, and some old St. Olaf standbys by Clausen, the Christiansens, father and son, and Georg Schumann. Every bit of it was splendid.
The members of the choir, having memorized everything, sang without scores, and it made a difference. They used an acoustic shell and it made a difference. They got on and off the stage efficiently and looked terrific, and that made a difference. And they held hands as they sang, and I don't know whether that made a difference but it certainly didn't hurt.
Perhaps the gorgeous performances of Penderecki's "Agnus Dei" and the "Hallelujah" from Bach's "Singet dem Herrn" might be singled out for special note, but then so might countless other moments of the evening.