One of the great moments at any Hyllningsfest comes on a Friday evening, in the sanctuary of Bethany Lutheran Church.
Leah Ann Anderson, confident and erect, is in front of the Smoky Valley Men’s Choir, then turns to face them – and lifts a hand. An audience of several hundred falls quiet, as though they have been switched off, the expectant stillness of people who know they are about to be thrilled.
With the first chord, there is no doubt. The Choir has nailed it.
These three and a half dozen men, under Anderson’s direction and with accompanist Brenda Finch, perform with astonishing clarity, range and commanding resonance. The Choir is as close to exquisite as any group of its kind.
Hyllningsfest, a massive two-day biennial community celebration of Swedish heritage, begins Friday, October 13 and among the first events, the Men’s Choir performance – at 6 p.m., Bethany Church – is one of the most anticipated, for it is now embedded among the long traditions of the festival. This will be the 20th anniversary for the Choir, and its 11th festival performance.
The group’s remarkable sound does not come without work. Rehearsals are for two hours in the Church fellowship hall each Tuesday evening up to the concert – eight rehearsals this year, 16 intense hours even for these musicians who know what they’re doing. At the first rehearsal, August 22, Anderson surveyed many familiar faces and tossed them a question:
“How many of you are ‘charter members’ – have been here from the beginning?”
A smattering of hands went up. Most of the others were hardly rookies.
“It’s a good balance of guys with a larger percentage of ‘retired,’ or close to it, and a nice sprinkling of younger singers,”
And then, this: “I never see them all at once,” she said.
“We’ll have eight rehearsals, and I never see all of them, together, until the actual performance. Some come to rehearsal this time, and have a conflict and miss one, but they’ll be back, and so forth. It used to scare me to death.
“But they are devoted, most are experienced and with beautiful voices, and I came to realize that they will make it work because they love what they’re doing.”
The men have other lives, other routines. This year their eclectic mix includes physicians, several bankers, many farmers, a few business managers, merchants, teachers, laborers, and at least one in the insurance business, among others, and the range in age spans at least three generations. They love to sing, and they know that Anderson can get them to sing beautifully.
She is an experienced teacher and musician, beginning as a student and choir director years ago in St. Louis, and having taught vocal music at Smoky Valley High School for 14 years; she “retired” in 2010, and has been teaching vocal music at Bethany College since 2011.
“The group has so much talent,” Anderson said of the Men’s Choir, “and they’re such good musicians, and the good ones are pulled along by the ones who can really sing.”
She is thoughtful, appreciative, praising their generations: “Darrel Holmquist, such a beautiful tenor, his son Tom, and his son, Ryan, and this says something: men seem to retain their voice much better into their years, and it’s a beautiful thing. Stanley Anderson was another lovely tenor. During performances he and Darrel would stand in the front line on the floor level near the piano so they could lean on it when they needed to.”
The Choir was the idea of Carroll Lindgren, who wanted to form a community men’s choir as part of the Hyllningsfest program in 1997, and asked Anderson to direct the group; it has become a vivid paragon of Hyllningsfest itself, inspired by or descended from the generations drawn to this country and to the land, the settlers who made their homes here, pioneers who came here to live in dugouts and huts with only their spare clothes, their faith, their hymnals, and an abiding love of music. They could sing.
Anderson tells of the strength and energy in the group, its music: “Ewald Lofdahl was a lovely man, a beautiful baritone, and for years he was at nearly every rehearsal. One year (2009) his son, David, died in September (age 56) and it was terrible, with Ewald so stricken. We were going into final rehearsals, and so soon after his loss we assumed Ewald would be absent – and down the stairs he came.
“We hugged, and I expressed our sorrow and sympathy, and surprise that he had returned so soon. Ewald looked at me and said, ‘Where else would I be?’”
Anderson said the Choir’s program this year will again be an assortment – “the familiar, some not-so familiar, some secular, some religious, some fun, and something to tickle the soul.
“’The Battle of Jericho’,” she said, is a difficult arrangement by Moses Hogan, known for taking familiar spirituals and doing “something interesting and challenging.
“And the men will hate this, just hate it,” Anderson said. “And it will end up being their favorite song.”
And there is a quirky version of “Fever,” arranged by Håkan Sund and edited by Mike Wallen. “The interpretation from Sund’s Swedish took me hours,” Anderson said, “and Mike has been a genius with putting it together.”
And familiar favorites – “Tryggare kan ingen vara,” the Swedish children’s hymn, of course – will be offered.
One other: “Tonera,” an old Swedish song, so difficult to translate that the original has been lost over the years, but to Anderson it doesn’t matter. “It’s about the tone, the music, and how meaningful and soothing it is. The melody is exquisite.”