“Kann ich apfelstrudel mit schlagsahne, bitte?” Learning how to ask for apple strudel with whipped cream was just one of the key food-related questions that I mastered during January term 1980. I was a member of the Saint John’s University Men’s Chorus, and along with members of the Chamber Choir from Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, and the Saint Ben's Campus Singers (now CSB Women's Choir), we performed more than a dozen concerts in that short span of time. Under the direction and guidance of Dr. Axel Theimer we traveled through Germany, Austria and Hungary, and for me it was the first time I had ever been outside the United States. Needless to say, it was an incredibly powerful experience.
Choral music at Saint John’s has a long tradition of excellence, beginning in 1948 with concerts under the direction of Fr. James Kelly. Gerhard Track succeeded him and during his eleven-year tenure the choirflourished and toured extensively throughout the US and Europe. But more than anyone it is Axel Theimer who has done so much to shape the character of the choral tradition at Saint John’s (and since starting the mixed-voice CSB/SJU Chamber Choir in 1970, he has influenced the choral tradition at Saint Ben’s as well). With his close ties to Europe and his own connection with the Vienna Boys Choir, he has enhanced the great tradition of world-class choral music at Saint John’s, and he has done so for an astonishing forty-seven years!
Dr. Theimer reminds students and audiences alike that “making music and singing are as old as humankind. They have long been a part of our celebrations, rituals and social gatherings.” But if Theimer believes that singing as an ensemble is reason enough for making music, we also value it for additional reasons — including the opportunity to see the world.
As Theimer continues to shepherd our choirs through domestic and international tours, his goal is not so much to impress as to inspire. He wants Saint John’s to provide occasions for audiences to be moved by the music, but in the process this impacts the choir members as well. Bolstering this notion are the comments of Men’s Chorus alumnus Ted Kain ’12, one of my colleagues in Institutional Advancement.
“Participating in three choir tours during my college career was a privilege. I learned a tremendous amount about culture, geography, sacred spaces that encourage music-making, and fostering relationships with classmates as well as with hosts who opened their homes to us weary travelers. I am so grateful to have had the chance to tour across Europe and the United States and to experience the power that music can have on an ensemble and its audience.”
Ted is not alone in his appreciation of the profound impact that choral singing and touring can have on members of the choir. Included in that vast number is an alumnus of the Class of 2013 who found his experience in the Men’s Chorus to be a time of personal growth, artistic challenge, and bonding through common experience. His parents were equally impressed by their son’s experience, and in gratitude they made very significant contributions to an endowed fund to support the touring program of future choirs. Though neither are graduates of Saint John’s or Saint Ben’s, during the past three years these “parents of an alumnus” have made sizable gifts both to the Student Fund and to the Choir Tour Endowed Fund. They also double the impact of their gifts by taking full advantage of Wells Fargo’s matching gift program.Dr. Theimer and the entire community at Saint John’s are deeply grateful for this support for the University’s music mission. “This endowment allows us to share our music and our approach to ‘what music is all about’ more broadly,” notes Theimer. “It also enables our ensembles to present at conventions and other domestic and international events that rarely offer financial assistance. For that we are grateful!”
“High above the Sagatagan, towering over the oak and pine.” So goes the hymn to our alma mater, and thanks to the loyal support of alumni — as well as to grateful parents of alumni — her beacon will continue to shine far and wide.
[Readers can access “High above the Sagatagan” through this link.]