The Choir of the West (= COW) is the premier choral ensemble of the Department of Music at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU). The choir was founded in 1926, and was the third Lutheran college choir to tour extensively throughout the USA. The Choir of the West has toured to Europe, Scandinavia, Japan and China, and has been selected to appear at several regional and national conferences of the National Association for Music Education and the American Choral Directors Association. During the summer of 2011, Choir of the West competed among choirs from 47 nations at the prestigious Harmonie Festival in Lindenholzhausen, Germany, winning two gold certificates and one silver. The Choir is comprised of undergraduate students from a variety of academic disciplines. Members are chosen through a rigorous audition. The choir performs several concerts each year, including shared concerts with other PLU ensembles, the annual series of six Christmas concerts, campus ministry services, and campus celebratory events.
The third Lutheran college to develop a nationally touring a cappella choir was Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, Wash. In the fall of 1925, Pacific Lutheran College, by then grown to nearly 150 students, hired a young St. Olaf graduate, Joseph Edwards, to head the music department. During the opening weeks of the 1926-1927 school year, Edwards started trying out voices for the “Choir of the West,” a name suggested by an early tour manager of the choir. Despite a shortage of qualified singers, Edwards started building a choir that became respectable and even excellent in time.
The choir traveled regularly, often sang on the radio, and was critically well received. All through the 1930's the PLC Bulletin announced the special role of the Choir of the West: “This organization enjoys the unique distinction of being the only college choir west of the Mississippi specializing in a cappella music. Mr. Edwards was our Director of Music… [he was] one time a student under F. Melius Christiansen, director of the St. Olaf Choir… [Edwards built] the Pacific Lutheran Choir into an organization worthy of this illustrious teacher.”
Gunnar Malmin came to Pacific Lutheran College in the fall of 1937. At first, Malmin’s efforts to keep the Choir of the West going were something of a struggle—the male student body was reduced at one point to nine. But the postwar years were a time of strong development for the choir. Malmin said of it, “I have always believed that the a cappella choir singing sacred music expresses the highest ideals of Christian higher education culturally and spiritually.” It was also a fine singing organization that profited greatly from Malmin’s flair for programming. Malmin knew his audiences and what they wanted to hear. The choir’s 1963 tour of Norway marked its peak of artistic attainment, as demonstrated by the reviews in many Scandinavian and German newspapers.
In the fall of 1964, Maurice Skones came to PLU as chairman of the Music Department and director of the Choir of the West. Maurice Skones was well prepared for his new role, having studied choral directing under Paul J. Christiansen at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. When Maurice Skones took over the choir, he immediately put his own stamp on it. Although he was well within the historical tradition of Lutheran college choirs, he wanted to emphasize the choir as a concert ensemble.
It was announced that the Choir would present the world premiere of Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa’s major vocal piece, The Vanities of Life. Rózsa, a friend of Maurice Skones, was famous as a composer of music for Hollywood movies (Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, El Cid, King of Kings), for which he had won three Academy Awards. The premiere was part of October 23, 1965 Homecoming concert. It was a critical success. Afterward Rózsa commented: “I am overwhelmed at how they sang. I had not imagined the work to be performed by memory… Mr. Skones is a true choral genius… This is one of the greatest choirs in the nation, with precision second to none.”
The cultural high point of the mid-seventies was undoubtedly the May 1974 West Coast premiere of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Passion According to St. Luke. Penderecki is one of the best-known composers of the late 20th century, and Passion, which premiered in Europe in 1967, is considered his masterpiece. According to Mooring Mast reporter Judy Carlson, it blends Gregorian chant, folk music, nonverbal choir sounds, and modified serialism in an eclectic style. The stage in Eastvold Auditorium was filled to overflowing with performers, and the total effect of the music was extraordinary.
In February 1979 the choir sang in New York City’s Lincoln Center to excellent reviews: “There are many superior college choir groups around the country, but not many of them would probably care to tackle the demanding and musically rich program offered by the Choir of the West… These young students from Pacific Lutheran University… not only surmounted almost every challenge splendidly, but also did [so] while singing the entire concert from memory.”
Richard Sparks came to PLU to conduct the Choir of the West in 1983 and was director for 18 years, until 2001. This followed a period in Seattle where he gained his early reputation founding and conducting Seattle Pro Musica (which is still going strong) and three years of teaching at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Under Richard Sparks, the touring tradition of the Choir of the West continued with notable tours of the East Coast in 1986 (concerts in Minneapolis, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., North Carolina, and Florida), England in 1988, Japan and China in 1991, Scandinavia in 2001, and many tours down the I-5 corridor and in the Northwest.
One of the first big productions under Richard Sparks was the first performance in the northwest of Benjamin Britten’s enormous War Requiem, with performances on campus and at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. As the Seattle P.I. said: “The performance was an inspired event… and by any standard, was outstanding. It is even more impressive considering the difficulty of the music, the size of the performing forces and the youthfulness of the musicians.” An accomplished conductor of orchestras, Richard Sparks also involved the Choir of the West in a series of performances with Seattle’s Northwest Chamber Orchestra, including J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) and St. John Passion (BWV 245). Other projects included Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vespers (the first complete performance by a University choir), and a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer with pianists Robin and Rochelle McCabe. Also with Robin McCabe came an acclaimed commission from Peter Schickele of his The Twelve Months.
With the opening of Lagerquist Concert Hall in 1995 (both its great acoustics and sound isolation from outside noise), a series of CD recordings was begun, and Richard Sparks made five recordings with the Choir of the West (including S. Rachmaninov’s Vespers and current COW conductor Richard Nance’s Mass for a New Millennium). He also started a series of Christmas recordings (released every other year), involving all the PLU choirs.
Richard Sparks’ career at PLU was capped in 2001 with a performance of the Verdi Requiem (with all Choir of the West alumni soloists) and the tour of Scandinavia. He left PLU to pursue conducting of professional choirs and to do guest conducting.
Kathryn Lehmann became the fifth conductor of the Choir of the West in the fall of 2001. Lehmann was the first PLU graduate and former COW member to return to conduct the choir. Lehmann’s choirs were chosen to perform for the Washington Music Educators Association (2002), and for the Northwestern Division Convention of the American Choral Directors Association (2006). The highlight of her career at PLU came with the choir’s performance at the ACDA National Convention held in Los Angeles in 2005.
Richard Nance came to PLU in 1992, and for fifteen years conducted the University Chorale, University Singers and Choral Union. Under Richard Nance’s direction, all three of these choirs were chosen to sing at ACDA conventions (1996, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006), and the Choral Union twice toured to Europe. Upon Kathryn Lehmann’s departure from PLU in 2006, Richard Nance was named Director of Choral Activities and conductor of the Choir of the West. He led the choir’s tour to Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in 2007, as well as the tour to Germany and France in 2011. That tour featured performances at the Harmonie Festival in Lindenholzhausen, Germany, a world competition that takes place once every six years. Choirs from 47 countries participated in the 2011 festival. The Choir of the West won a Gold Certificate (second place) in the Large Mixed Choir division, and the men of the choir won a Gold Certificate (first place) in the Male Chamber Choir division. The women of the choir were awarded a Silver Certificate in the Women’s Chamber Choir division. Under Richard Nance’s direction the Choir of the West appeared at the 2009 Northwest MENC Conference, and the choir has been selected to appear at the 2012 Northwestern Division Conference of the American Choral Directors Association.