Conductor Kenneth Jennings
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Kenneth Jennings (b. 1925) is
Tosdal Professor Emeritus of Music at St. Olaf College and Conductor
Emeritus of the St. Olaf Choir. A graduate of St. Olaf, he sang
as a member of the St. Olaf Choir as an undergraduate. He holds a
master's degree in composition from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and
a doctorate in choral conducting from the University of Illinois.
He was appointed to the faculty of St. Olaf College in 1953, and
ascended to one of the world's most coveted choral podiums in 1968 as
the third director of the internationally renowned St. Olaf Choir,
succeeding founder F. Melius Christiansen and his son-successor, Olaf
C. Christiansen. He retired from St. Olaf College in 1990, turning over
the podium to his former student, Anton Armstrong. His Son, Dr. Mark
Jennings, is the director of Choral Activities at Truman State
University in Kirksville, Missouri.
As director of the St. Olaf Choir Jennings became noted for guiding and
maturing the group from one rooted substantially in its 1911 era
founding to arguably one of the most highly respected choral ensembles
of the world. Never forsaking the choir's Lutheran heritage, he
successfully broadened the ensemble's repertoire to include works of
noted composers of the post-World War II era.
He led performances of the St. Olaf Choir in all major performing
centers of the United states and many in Europe and Asia, including
music festivals in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Norway and
Korea. Under his leadership, the Choir also had a long and
distinguished collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra under the
baton of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Neville Marriner.
Since his retirement, he has served as a visiting professor and choral
conductor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota and The
University of Arizona, Tucson. Jennings served as the guest conductor
at anniversary concerts in honor of F. Melius Christiansen. His
continuing work as a composer includes commissions from the Dale
Warland Singers, Cantus, Luther College, Gustavus Adolphus College,
Kansas All-State Choir, Angelica Cantanti Choirbrook and the Choral
Masterworks Series of historic recordings of the St. Olaf Choir.
His numerous compositions and editions are widely published.
Besides my work at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, I
spent a year and a half with Music
in the Air, the company which provided the entertainment package
aboard several airlines. I selected the music and was the voice
of the Classical Music program on United Airlines, which was also given
to Air Force One, the presidential jetliner. I also did a few
special programs for Delta, Eastern, and Northwest.
At the beginning of June, 1988, they asked me to do an interview with
Kenneth Jennings, the conductor and Music Director of the St. Olaf
Choir in Northfield, MN, for use on Northwest Airlines. I gladly
agreed, and the appointment was set up to speak with him on the
telephone. What follows is a transcript of that conversation . .
. . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You are the director of the St. Olaf
Yes. This is the end of my twentieth
year. I started in 1968.
BD: Tell me the
particular joys and sorrows of working with a
group of human voices.
KJ: The joy is the
fact that this is a human
instrument, not a man-made instrument, and it involves people doing
people can do. There is also, the fact that I’m dealing with
people, undergraduate college age, delightful,
responsive people who have not become too professional yet and
therefore still dare to express themselves, in a less inhibited way
than older people. I like to conduct these people, but there are
all kinds of problems, of course, because they
still are young and not very experienced.
BD: Does it become
more of a problem as they become older and
perhaps become more professionally aligned?
KJ: For some
people, certainly, this becomes a way. These people,
the ones we deal with, are just in the beginning stages of
musical and vocal maturity. They are still discovering a great
deal about themselves and what music and the world is about. When
one gets a little bit older, sometimes some of our experiences create
more realistic or different impressions that are not as
spontaneous and youthful and vigorous, and sometimes as beautiful.
BD: What is the size of
KJ: The choir runs
between sixty-five and seventy. I
think it will be sixty-eight or sixty-nine this summer.
BD: Do you always
try to stay around that number?
KJ: We do for
various reasons. We can fit that number on
two buses when we travel. The size of the hall we sing in
requires some body of tone, and while we do not need as many, with the
young singers it fits us
better. When we do tour, we’re usually under a great deal of
pressure. We have many concerts in a short space of time, and a
few are going to
have colds and a few are not going to feel well because of travel and
on. So this gives us a little cushion of some people even when
we’re not all
operating one hundred percent.
BD: Do you select
the voices that will go into the choir?
KJ: Oh yes, and
that’s rather a long and complicated process.
BD: What do you
for when you audition a singer? What do you look for before you
whether or not this particular voice will fit into your choir?
KJ: I look for
several things. One is simply someone who really
likes to sing, who has a lyric personality and who wishes to sing,
enjoys singing and wants to. Then one looks for a very healthy
voice, a voice that does not have a lot of built-in problems,
that works basically fairly well. Since most of these students
are still beginning, many of them
are not so advanced. The third item that we look for is
simply a very good ear
— people who hear quickly and
alertly and can match pitches very quickly and very well. The ear
very important in all music, but it is absolutely essential in
singing. If one does not hear it very clearly, then one is not
going to sing it very clearly. In instrumental music,
there’s always the aid of the keys and the placement of
fingers to help secure pitches, whereas singers must hear it
in their heads. If they can’t hear it in their heads, they cannot
sing it, so the ear is very, very important. So we look for a
very good ear, a healthy voice, a
naturally well-produced voice, and a spirit that wishes to sing, likes
to sing and knows how to communicate.
BD: About how many
do you have audition, and about what
percentage of them do you take?
KJ: It’s about one
in five that we take.
BD: There is that
much of a screening process?
KJ: Yes, and then
there’s a good deal of self-screening
before they come to see me. We take in about thirty, and we
will have as many as two hundred audition.
BD: These are all
from the college?
KJ: Yes, they’re
all college students.
BD: Is it at all
frustrating to know that there will be a
forced turnover every year?
KJ: We’ll take in
not quite half a new choir. First of all, they’re here only four
years, and I very
seldom take a freshman or a new student just coming into
the college. So we have about three years, and in one of those
many as fifty percent of the group that might be available may be
traveling and studying in places other than St. Olaf because we have
a very large international program. So probably most of them, a
large majority of the students are in about two years, and that
means almost fifty percent turn-over every year.
BD: So with half
the new choir then essentially you’re dealing
with a new instrument each year.
KJ: A new
instrument and sometimes a very different
BD: Does the kind
of instrument you wind up with each fall
help to dictate the repertoire you will sing?
Absolutely. One can make some choices about the things
you think will probably work, but there are some choirs that are
much more lyric and some choirs that are more dramatic. So
always a choice of repertoire that reflects that particular personality
of the group.
BD: Do your
soloists come from
within the choir or from elsewhere?
KJ: Usually from
within the choir.
BD: How do you
KJ: By the time I
have gone through all these audition
processes and worked with the students almost every day for a year, I
know pretty well what they can do. Many times we hold
auditions for those solo spots. It takes a
particular kind of voice to do a particular kind of solo.
BD: I would think
that the voice which would work well in the solo would not be the kind
of voice that would blend with the
KJ: It depends on
how they sing. Those with very good ears and
very healthy voices have no problem. It’s the peculiar kind of
solo productions that sometimes cause difficulty, but for the most part
that’s not a difficult problem.
BD: I assume that
most of the repertoire that you’re singing is four-part part SATB?
BD: Do you also
divide it differently on occasion, or use all women or all men for
but for the most part we do a mixed
chorus repertoire which can divide up to only forty-eight
parts. We did a piece of Penderecki several years ago
in which we divided everything into forty-eight voices, plus
the orchestra. [See my Interview with
BD: So essentially
each one was a soloist?
KJ: Well, each one
has a part.
BD: Do you do a
lot of new music?
KJ: We do quite a
lot of new music. For our program for this
summer, outside of a Bach motet, all the rest is Twentieth Century
BD: What advice do
you have for a composer who wants to write
KJ: That’s a very
good question. I’ve always been a little
puzzled by all the composers that we have sitting in all the
universities and colleges in the country. One of the
main ways composers earn their living is being on faculties of music
schools, so why do they ignore this area as much as they do, and write
the symphony orchestra which will likely not be
played very often? They have so many
built-in choral groups within these colleges and universities.
of all, they need to listen to choruses and they need to know something
— as much as they know about clarinets and flutes and
violins and strings and brass. Most of the training is via the
instrumental side of things. We talk about orchestrations, and
everybody just assumes that they will
automatically know how to write for voices. But to write well for
voices takes a lot of experience and a lot of listening and a lot of
careful attention to what works. For example, take a C Major
chord. If you put the tenors on Middle C and the
altos on the E and the sopranos on G, when you put the basses down an
octave below the tenors it’s a very mild sounding sonority.
But if you move the basses up one octave, that sonority will change
radically and become enormously stronger. It’s
that kind of
thing. If you do that on the piano, it doesn’t mean a
orchestral student would probably miss that entirely in terms of
sonority for choruses.
BD: Is there any
correlation between that and putting the cellos
up with the violas?
KJ: Yes, but even
stronger. Think of forte
chords with the basses up the octave. You
can move them up to D or E Flat and it would be enormously powerful
changing a thing except that the basses are moved up an octave.
It is for that kind of adjustment, knowing what works well and
what will sound. Then it’s the whole other dimension of
music-making that the instrumentalist has no real awareness of, and
that has to do with text, which is simply another element which does
involve instruments at all.
BD: Do you work
terribly hard on the diction of your choirs?
indeed. To get an elegant diction that conveys and is
able to be understood well takes a lot of work because most
of us are pretty sloppy in the way we speak. Young people have
generally not been advanced terribly far in their handling of text in a
very poetic musical fashion. It’s one thing to put on an ending T
or D, but putting something else into an artistic part of the
whole is quite another matter.
BD: Coming back to
the members of the chorus for just a moment,
are most of these students going on to professional degrees in music or
are a lot of them in engineering and sociology and things like that?
KJ: The vast
majority of them are not music majors. We come
from a peculiar college where the music has always been a very
important part of students’ lives. However, only a small
part of those people are in it in a professional way that is preparing
for professional lives in music. As much as a quarter to
of the college is involved in some kind of music making, so
the vast number of these students are not music majors.
However, they come here because they know that they can study music and
can be involved in music even though they’re not going to major in
that. We teach over eight hundred private lessons to
students every week out of the college that’s three thousand.
There is a very large number of students studying individually with
private teachers. Many of these people are in it as an
avocation, but as a very serious avocation. They will probably
in making music of some kind for the rest of their lives, even
though they may become bankers or lawyers or engineers or doctors or
what have you.
BD: Do you think
that this is perhaps a very special way to get
more music out to more of the community than just through professional
KJ: I think it has
happened this way in terms of alumni
of the college. For the past seventy
five or eighty years there is a vast group of people who have
participated in these kinds of programs
at St. Olaf. This moves us out into the community, and it
certainly has been very important to us. I know students who go
to other universities, and when they go to audition
— say they go to
Yale and to the Yale Glee Club. When they ask, “Where are you
from?” they’ll say,
“St. Olaf,” and they put them right in. Even if they haven’t sung
anything they think that’s a good place because they say
they’re from St. Olaf. Many people tell me, “They think that I
should be able to conduct a choir just because I graduated from St.
Olaf.” That has been true as the choir for
seventy five years has moved across the
country on tour every single year, particularly since
1920. We are probably the oldest touring group in the country
that is still doing it, professionally or otherwise.
BD: Tell me about
making records. Do you sing any
differently in the recording studio than you do in the concert hall?
KJ: For the most
part our recordings are made from actual
performances. I prefer to do it that
way. I tried the route of the recording studios, but they are not
the most pleasant places to perform. There’s
something electric about a live performance, and if you happen to hit a
good performance, I prefer to take the actual doing of the music and
not the artificial way of producing a recording and going through a
recording studio. Maybe it’s because they’re young people or
maybe it’s because of me, but we have found that we do much better when
it is live, so all of our recordings are made
from live performance.
BD: Do you then
record every performance you give?
KJ: Yes, most of
them. We don’t record everything we do on
the road, but everything we do here at the college and where we have
recording facilities we do.
BD: Then you have
quite a large choice then when you want to
KJ: That’s right.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the recordings that have
KJ: I’ll say yes
and no. Recording a choir seems
to be a very difficult thing to do. The engineers tell me that
there are overtones and voices which they find very difficult to
the right way. There’s the problem of the spatial sensation that
one has in a room, and the kind of rolling
effect that a recording can create. There is a confining or
boxing of the
sound that makes it concentrated and not feel as open and free as it
does in the actual concert hall. I’m always trying to get
them to find the right balance of mike placement that gives us
that sense of openness and clarity and ambience of a concert hall and
not of an artificially added reverberation in a basically dry
recording. This seems to be
more difficult, at least they tell me it’s more difficult than
recording an orchestra. I never could quite believe that, but
that’s what they tell me. Either that or they don’t have the
experience of doing it.
BD: Perhaps that’s
— the lack of experience and knowledge as you were saying about
KJ: I had thought
that perhaps that’s it. You can record
things in many different ways. The usual is the layering effect
that they do in
popular music where you lay one thing down and then another and then
another. One can record all the highs and then say, “We’ll add
the lows when we use our mixers and so on.” Also, many of them
to record extremely close. It’s one thing to record one
instrument close, but another thing to record a whole group of twenty
singers close. Obviously you’re going to get those who are
to the microphone to sound simply closer. So to pick the
right spot where the sounds come together and actually do mix
in front of the group is quite
BD: But you do
find it occasionally?
KJ: I think we
find it occasionally. So yes I can be pleased. What I look
for, of course, is the best performance that I think we can do and then
I say, “Let’s see what else we can find.” I’m a little
fussy about what I do put on
records. A recording is like photograph in that it only shows one
one possibility at that particular moment in music. Sometimes it
catches what is most attractive and sometimes it does
not. I’m pretty fussy about that, so we don’t put out a
recording every year. We record every year but it takes
me sometimes a year or two to get enough distance on it so that I can
be objective about the value of what we’ve done.
BD: Let me ask you
a great big philosophical question. What is
the purpose of music in society?
KJ: That is a very
big question. I think that all
— animal living things, at least
— communicate in some kind of
way. Humans are the only ones that have an organized kind of
communication through speech and through concrete meanings of that
speech. I suppose the birds sometimes are just singing songs, but
we know that they are communicating in some way there, too.
They’re either warning other birds not to
come near by or inviting more birds to come. There’s been some
studies about whales and all the communications they make. They
make various beeps and sounds that can be recorded, and some people
think they’re quite beautiful. Further, it seems that humans in
every society have always had some kind
of music. This is an aesthetic thing. The sound is
that goes with the spirit of being human, and “aesthetic”
“spirit” in its original
sense. There seems to be something in
people, in humankind, that needs this and so it has come into every
culture. Certainly in our particular day and age
music doesn’t solve mathematical problems; it doesn’t solve engineering
problems; it doesn’t solve health problems. It is not that kind
thing, but it is the spirit of giving that is one of the things
that makes us human and seems to be kind of a need which we all
have. This is organized in many different ways. Right
now we organize it through orchestras, choirs of solo
singers and ensemble singers, ensemble players and so on.
This, of course, has changed from period to period. Various kinds
of groups have encouraged it
— the church or the state and the society
— but it seems to me that it’s a pervasive part of being
human, and I hope we always have it. I would worry quite a
bit if we didn’t, although I could get along without the elevator music.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
KJ: Oh yes.
I don’t have any doubts about our
making music; it’s a question of what kind of music we might be making
in the future. What kinds of music might be meaningful and what
might be meaningful to me at my age and spirit-giving may
not be the same as what’s going to happen to young people later on.
BD: Is there any
difference in your performance when you’re
singing a sacred work as opposed to a secular work?
KJ: From a
technical point of view, no. I would put
just as much of whatever I know and whatever I can get singers to do in
a secular piece and a sacred piece. The music itself is not
anything different; it’s the occasion for which it’s used
and the text that’s involved that creates something that we call
“sacred” or “secular”.
But we will try to sing it just as
beautifully and just as well whether it’s a Debussy chanson or a Bach
BD: Just as
KJ: It depends on
what you mean by “meaningfully”.
I would say with the same kind of artistic integrity, yes. If the
meanings come out differently, that’s the meaning which emerges from
are many things that make people feel that they’re going to create at
their maximum level of ability, and it may be that for some,
thinking in sacred terms and the meaning of the text will some way
elicit a sense of awe or a response that someone might deem richer and
more meaningful. But if it’s a good piece of music, its artistic
integrity should hold in terms of performance
BD: What do you
expect of the audience who comes to see one of
KJ: In some way I
would expect them to be taken up
by the music so that they are in a responsive mood that in some way
moves them. There are many entries into art. For some
it’s going to be through the sheer sound of the group, for others it
may be on a deeper level of musical meaning, and for
still others the entry into it may be through text and what they
be the meaning of that text that comes through the music. Most
audiences are comprised of many different levels of
listening and abilities to respond, so one would hope that
many of these levels would be reached for the different people who
come and experience. We hope to move them
in some way so that they feel enriched in spirit.
BD: Does the
response of the audience affect your performance?
KJ: The students
who sing in this group are
humans and they feel it if there’s a very positive response. If
like what they’re doing and they’re enjoying what they’re doing it’s a
reciprocal kind of response. All artists respond this
way. If you feel that you’re not reaching your audience and they
turned off by it, it’s more difficult to continue to try to reach out
and do your very best. But we all enjoy the fact that the
people we have in front of us are listening and enjoying what we’re
doing, and that some way makes us respond. If you ever have an
audience that just sits on its hands and doesn’t respond, that is more
BD: Do you look at
the group as
sixty-eight individuals, or do you look on it as one unit?
KJ: I think
both. They are sixty eight individuals whom I
know really quite well, and I know that they are all contributing
certain kinds of talents. Some of them are different. Some
voice, some have better ears, some have spirit, some are more artistic,
but all these things move into making what is the choir which is a
unified whole. It is a cooperative thing, and we do have
to find people who wish to cooperate that way. That’s part of
the lyric spirit I was talking about before. It is also a
cooperative kind of spirit; people who enjoy doing things
together. We have such a cult of individualism in this country
that to get a group of people to come together to respond to musical
nuances together is rare. It’s a growing, developing kind of
thing which we work on for a long, long time to get us that electric
point of immediate response and sensing that we’re all responding
together in a manner which creates one thing up there. So the
choir is a group of individuals who come together to share a
common experience and to create a oneness with one another.
BD: That’s a
wonderful way of looking at it. Is
[Laughs] It’s fun, it’s also hard work, but it’s a delight.
I’ve not conducted now for two weeks. A
pianist or anyone who plays an instrument can go and pick that
instrument up and play it or do some practicing. But a conductor
often has to take three months or four months of conducting nothing but
his imagination and the air in front of him or her. There is
no way to practice your instrument, so to speak, and you have a very
limited number of hours that you actually get in front of the
when one has that opportunity, it’s always thrilling to be able to do
that. I enjoy it.
BD: With such a
lack of opportunity to practice, how does one learn
to be a choral conductor?
KJ: That’s a very
good question. You have to have a group. I was just reading
the biography of Berstein, which I did not enjoy
very much. It talked about Kousevitzsky who married a very
wealthy lady who then was able to give him the opportunities by buying
him an orchestra so he had something to practice on. The rest of
us have to
get a post, and once you get that post you’re faced with the
responsibility for the outcome of that
particular group. It’s through that that you learn. I don’t
know any other good way to do it.
BD: I would assume
they won’t give you a post unless you’ve
learned how to do it.
There’s some basic things, of course. The actual
motions of conducting are quite easy, but the problem is listening and
being able to diagnose what things are good and what things need to be
improved. That takes years of experience. For our young
conductors here, we
have just instituted a new setup for conducting. Most of them
have had only one or two semesters in conducting, and then in some way
or another for the rest of their lives they’re supposed to know how to
do it. So we have just changed that to start them now at the
sophomore level. We include both the instrumental and the vocal
people together. The instrumental people play the vocal music and
the singers sing the instrumental music, so they get a chance to see
how both people are starting to operate in terms of making music in
front of people. Then we move on to two separate categories of
choral conducting or instrumental conducting. They
can take both of these since they’re at different times, and they can
continue on with that. Then we have another semester in which
they can take which is called advanced conducting. It’s only a
few people who do this, so it’s sort of a one person kind of
affair. They go out and get their friends to form a group.
They set up rehearsal times and they select some repertoire that
they think they can do, and they take about eight weeks of rehearsing
this group once or twice or several times, two or three or
four hours a
week. Then they perform and they learn an enormous amount having
to be responsible for the formation of their own group
and for the success of that group. We also try to give them some
podium time. In this case, with
advanced conductors, it’s fully a time for which they’re completely
responsible. It’s not somebody else’s group, it’s theirs.
It’s worked out really quite well, and those that have had those
have a better opportunity to go out and try to create music with other
established groups. But it does take years of conducting before
you are a good conductor.
BD: I’m looking
over the list of the music
which will be on this particular program on Northwest Airlines, so
talk just a little bit about some of these pieces. First is the Brazilian
Psalm by Jean Berger (pronounced as in French, zhahn
bare-ZHAY). Is he still alive?
KJ: Yes. He
lives in Colorado. He was one of my teachers at the
University of Illinois. He also
runs a company called “John Shepherd Company” which is what Jean Berger
would translate to in English. He’s very interesting
fellow. Brazilian Psalm
a piece that he wrote just after World War Two for the Westminster
|Jean Berger (1909-2002) was born
Arthur Schloßberg into a Jewish family in Hamm, Westphalia, and
grew up in Alsace-Lorraine. He studied musicology at the universities
of Vienna and Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in 1931 with
Heinrich Besseler as his advisor. He also studied composition with
Louis Aubert in Paris. While working as the assistant conductor at an
opera house in Mannheim, he was forcibly removed from a rehearsal by
Brown Shirts. After the Nazi Party seized power in Germany in 1933, he
moved in Paris, where he took the French name Jean Berger, and toured
widely as a pianist and accompanist. From 1939 to 1941, he was
assistant conductor at the Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro and on
the faculty of the Brazilian Conservatory. He also toured widely
throughout South America. In 1941, he moved to the United States and
served in the U.S. Army starting in 1942. In 1943, he became a US
citizen. He worked in the Office of War Information producing
foreign-language broadcasts and USO shows until 1946. From 1946 to
1948, he worked as an arranger for CBS and NBC and toured as a concert
In 1948 Berger moved into the academic world, taking a faculty position
at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, which he held until 1959.
From 1959 to 1961, he was on the faculty of the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign. From 1961 to 1966, he taught at the University of
Colorado at Boulder and then the Colorado Women's College in Denver
from 1968 to 1971. From 1970 on, he lectured widely throughout the
world on various aspects of American music.
-- From an article about Jean
memory serves me correctly, he’s going to be eighty next year.
KJ: He would be
eighty next year, that’s right. He doesn’t
look it at all. He still looks like he’s about fifty five... at
last time I saw him he did, a few years ago. He’s a very, very
interesting person. [As has
been noted elsewhere in this series of interviews, I always jumped at a
chance to make further contacts whenever possible. Jennings
provided me with a phone number, and the interview took place about a
month later.] At any rate, this
piece was not sung by the Westminster Choir. They thought it was
too difficult and Olaf Christenson, my predecessor in the St. Olaf
Choir discovered the piece. He took the last
part of it, which is the part which you hear on this recording, and
it with the choir. It was an enormous success and that’s the way
John Berger got known in the choral field. It was for that one
and the St. Olaf choir singing of it.
BD: Next is The King Shall Rejoice, one of the
Coronation Anthems by George
KJ: Yes, one of
those great pieces that is great fun to do.
We also did that piece with Neville Marriner a year or two ago.
BD: When you do a
work with an orchestra, who winds up with the ultimate
— you the choral director, or the
KJ: The orchestral
conductor usually gets to it if it’s
Marriner or Skrowaczewski. [See my Interview with
Stanisław Skrowaczewski.] They’ve always conducted, but I
prepare the chorus. I always prepare them as if I was going
to have to conduct it, so they’re well prepared before the
conductor sees them or hears them. But orchestral
conductors haven’t the faintest idea what to do with a
chorus. They just say they conduct the music, you see.
BD: Is that
— that they should just conduct
KJ: No, I think
that they ought to conduct the chorus and what it tries to do.
Marriner has a little sense of this, but when I’ve worked
with them they’ve always treated us as a soloist. A soloist comes
and knows what they’re doing and they respect that, but they really
have very little to say. Tempos may be different from what we do,
but when we’ve worked with the orchestra we meet with the conductor for
one or two rehearsals so we have an idea of what they would like
from the chorus.
BD: It sounds more
like coordination than instruction.
KJ: Yes, exactly.
BD: Have you ever
done any work with opera?
KJ: We did a
concert version of Magic Flute
with Skrowaczewski some years ago, but no, I’ve not had a lot
of doing with
opera. I’ve had students who have sung opera, but I, myself, have
recording that we’re going to use is the
Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.
65 of Brahms. Is this a special piece in any way?
KJ: It’s the
second set that Brahms
published. Actually he had written a lot of these pieces and
then published the first set. Some of the ones that he put in
the second set were things which he had written previously to
that. I feel that it is a little more of a whole than the first
set, and a
little more varied in a way. Both sets have some
wonderful pieces in them and I
enjoyed this set in particular. It’s one that fits our group
a little bit better than the first set. There are fewer duets and
less exposure of high
tenor parts. I think that it works
together as a whole and therefore it makes a little bit better
concert piece. Plus it’s a
little shorter and there aren’t quite so many pieces.
BD: We also have “Norge, mitt Norge!”
KJ: Yes, that’s “Norway,
We did that when we did a tour in Norway. That’s an interesting
piece. To the older Norwegians,
it’s a little like our “America the
Beautiful.” They have their national anthem and this is
sort of a second national anthem.
KJ: It’s very much
of a favorite. The man who wrote the
— his name is Paulsen
— was an immigrant to this country and lived
in Nebraska. He wrote quite a lot of music, and this piece got to
be known in Norway and became an
enormous favorite. The poet, whose name I can’t recall at the
was a very unusual man too. He was a Norwegian Jew
— if you can imagine
— and so here we have a Norwegian-American who writes
the music and a Norwegian Jew who writes the text, and this becomes
one of the great favorites of Norway. It’s a very beautiful piece
of music. I like it very much. It has some very sentimental
qualities to it, and is one of the pieces we did as an encore.
BD: It sort of
lends credence to the idea that music is the
KJ: Yes, yes it
BD: What is next
on the calendar for Kenneth Jennings?
KJ: We are going to
Seoul, Korea later this summer, and will
sing about five concerts there during the Olympics.
BD: You tour so
much. Is going to the Olympics a special
tour, or is it just another tour?
KJ: It’s a special
tour, but we did a month long
tour to the Orient two years ago. The group usually takes an
international tour every four or five years. We tour in the U.S.
every year to different parts of
the country. This next season we go
to the Southwest. We fly to Denver and then take buses from
Denver through the Southwest to California and up to San
Francisco. Because our time is about two weeks that’s as
far as we can get and then we fly back from there. We go out
for about two weeks, sometimes two weeks and a weekend; that’s about as
much time as students can afford to be away from campus. That
is our vacation between semesters. The following year we go out
to the east
coast in New York and Washington, D.C. and do some concerts
there. So we go to the Northeast and to the
Southeast and to the Middle West and to the Southwest and to the
Northwest. Those are out five different areas. We used to
whole Eastern trip and then a whole Western trip from the state of
Washington all the way down to San Diego
and then back again, but those were the old days when we could
travel by train and we’d take night coaches to get to the next
place. That gets very tiring, and the choir in the older days
stayed out at least a week
longer than we can now.
BD: Is it
basically your responsibility as the director to
make sure that the singers don’t sing too much and over-sing their
KJ: Oh yes.
They all study voice. All those who sing in the St.
Olaf Choir must study voice with a private voice teacher at St.
We do routines and we have a certain amount of rehearsing we feel is
voices. We work hard at that, but they must be
routined to be able to enjoy a tour like this. The
daily rehearsal and so on is to ensure that they build up the
stamina, the energy and concentration to do this kind of a tour and
entirely different situations and circumstances night after
night. It’s the old barnstorming kind of an affair.
BD: Thank you for
spending time with me this evening. It’s been a great pleasure
very welcome. I’ve enjoyed it very much.
When interviews are posted on this site, I attempt to contact my guest
and/or their family or agents to let them know of this further use of
the material. Usually this is long after the original meeting,
and occasionally I get a response. In this instance, I soon
received a lovely e-mail reply, part of which is shown here . . . . . .
Dear Bruce Duffie,
What a great surprise to read this interview from 25 years
ago! As I remembered, it had not gone too badly. I never
enjoyed being interviewed as
conductor of the choir, but I did enjoy talking to you on this
occasion. A very big thank you
for resurrecting it from the depths of your surprisingly long kept
files of interviews of so many years ago. Close now to 88 years
old and retired for 23 years I have had great pleasure reading what I
thought about regarding music, conducting and the choir some 25 years
ago. Thank you so much for finding this old interview and for
your questions that facilitated my answers.
I believe that you were looking at St Olaf Choir recordings
for listening channels on Northwest Airlines (now swallowed up by
Delta) perhaps in light of the Choir's trip to Korea and the Summer
Olympics. I can't be sure that it was not prompted by the fact
that the plane was being piloted by Bob Matta whose daughter Michelle
sang in the Choir. Nonetheless, when we boarded the plane we found that
Bob Matta was indeed the pilot and St Olaf choir was on the classic
listening channel! We sang 5 or 6 concerts in Korea that summer
including one in their very new concert hall.
Bruce, thank you for finding our interview and sending to me
this very special remembrance.
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 1,
1988. Portions (along with recordings) were used as
part of the in-flight entertainment package aboard Northwest Airlines
during July-August, 1988. This transcript was posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.