BEMIDJI – For the past 85 years, the Bemidji Choir of Bemidji State University has showcased their vocal prowess to tens of thousands of spectators lucky enough to hear their rich harmonies at concerts and tours around the world. .
After an 80th anniversary reunion in 2017, the opportunity for another celebration couldn’t come soon enough for Bemidji Choir director Dwight Jilek.
“The energy that accompanied all these people coming together that day was extraordinary,” Jilek said. “It’s about an extended family that when our students graduate, they graduate into a network that’s not just the people who were their colleagues as students, but also the people who have graduated five, 10, 20 or 50 years ago.”
As such, approximately 100 current and former students of the choir will unite to form the 85th Anniversary Reunion Choir for the Carl O. Thompson Memorial Concert which concludes BSU’s homecoming weekend at 3 p.m. Sunday, September 18 at the Beaus Complex -arts of Bangsberg.
This year’s celebration coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Bemidji Alumni Choir, a Minneapolis-based choral group led by BSU alumnus Mark Carlson in 1975 and formed in 1998 by Sarah Aamot in tandem with her master’s recital.
The ages of the alumni choir members range from their twenties to the oldest member, Robert Green, who graduated from BSU in 1957 and continues to support the bass section at age 87. He also studied with Carl O. Thompson, who started the BSU choir program in 1937.
“(Green) is more dynamic than some of my young singers,” Carlson said with a laugh.
According to Blake Staines, BSU Senior and President of the Bemidji Choir, the meeting will allow the singers to realize their similarities and differences in experiences when it comes to the BSU choral program.
“Just to see the continuation of so many generations of singers, I really think it will put into context that we take on this same responsibility to continue this long and rich tradition for future generations so that they can live the same experiences that have enriched our lives in very profound ways,” Staines said.
Staines noted the regional tour of the Bemidji Choir in the spring of 2022, during which they performed chamber music at Sainte-Marie Cathedral in Saint-Cloud. He admitted to having had a difficult semester and that this performance allowed him to manage his emotions.
“The music just sounded otherworldly, ethereal in that space. It feels like we’re back in the Middle Ages singing this stuff,” Staines detailed. “I actually started crying during the concert and then I completely broke down after we got off stage. It was such an emotional catharsis that brought all these emotions I was feeling to the surface and this was a real moment of clarity.
Growing up on the north shore of Lake Superior, Carlson noted the Bemidji Choir’s international tour of France where they performed at St. Lazare Cathedral in 1972.
This marked Carlson’s first-ever plane trip abroad and allowed the choir to befriend an Israeli choir. This also followed the Munich massacre, a terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Summer Games.
“I remember standing on the risers of the choir, singing along with this Israeli choir and looking up into the cathedral dome above, seeing armed guards with machine guns who were there to protect their choir,” Carlson recalled. “It was so uplifting for this small-town kid. Music gave me that experience.
Carlson also performed as part of the BSU Chamber Singers at Chartres Cathedral on this same tour.
“At that time, it wasn’t a place where you showed your appreciation by clapping in church,” Carlson said, “but we had maybe the most magical gig I’ve ever sung at. To be able to sing these 13th century pieces that were made for this cathedral was very magical and the nuns, priests and townspeople gave us a standing ovation with applause.
Carlson studied with Paul Brandvik, who was the director of choral activities at BSU from 1967 to 1998. Although retired, Brandvik remains active conducting the alumni choir’s closing piece, “In the Palm of His Hand “, during the choir’s regular season. He will also conduct it for the performance of the Reunion Choir this weekend.
“We are thrilled to share this moment with Brandvik and to have this connection that he was (at BSU) for over 30 years,” Jilek said. “Our current students will have that real tactile connection working with him like so many other people have.”
The Reunion Choir will also perform “Ngothando” by Mbosu Ndlovu, a South African piece which translates to “Through Love” and which the Bemidji Choir first performed amid the coronavirus pandemic in October 2020.
“These students who sang during the pandemic, they maintained the legacy of the Bemidji Choir,” Jilek added. “The message of the piece is needed in our time and represents the many people around the world who use the mechanism of choral music to bring love to the world, to connect people. In this way, I want to honor these students.
Toward the end of his college choir days, Staines paused, “It’s a very special moment, especially in my senior year, to be able to participate in the 85th (anniversary). And maybe one day I’ll come back as an elder and see how the tradition has continued.