A couple of days ago, the death of renowned choral conductor Kenneth Jennings (1925-2015) was announced. He was the third conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, which he led from 1968 until 1990. Here’s what Vaughn Ormseth wrote for MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) News:
As someone privileged to sing under Dr. Jennings for three rigorous, unforgettable years at St. Olaf, I can only say that his contribution to choral art (and my own education) was profound. He had a gift for illuminating music from the inside out, grounding every phrase and color in the text at hand, and sustaining works’ overall structure and power without ever sacrificing their subtlety. “Art is artless,” he would sometimes admonish us. He infused the great Christiansen choral tradition he’d inherited with the lightness and limberness that are afforded to college singers for a fleeting window in their 20s. The combination was revelatory.
During the choir’s tour of the Western U.S. my sophomore year, Jennings let us know before a concert that his mentor and predecessor Olaf C. Christiansen had become seriously ill. A week or so after we’d returned to campus, many members of the choir visited Dr. Christiansen at his home in Northfield and sang for him. Though frail, he was full of praise for Jennings, singling out and repeating a particular descriptor for him — “lyrical.”
In the words of Jennings’s own successor and former student, Anton Armstrong: “The world of choral music lost a great giant today with the passing of Kenneth Jennings at the age of 90… He was an immense influence on many of the leading choral directors of his time, both those who were able to sing under his baton or his beautiful hands, and those who experienced his performances with the St. Olaf Choir, and the other choirs he conducted. We will remember him with great love and great admiration, and most of all, with great appreciation for the beauty he brought to the world of choral music.
Here is Kenneth Jennings conducting “Beautiful Savior,” the signature piece for the St. Olaf Choir, arranged by choir founder F. Melius Christiansen.
So you can imagine how mortified Carl Crosier and I were, when in 1989, we were at a rehearsal for the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians conference, and we had brought our then-6 year old son, Stephen, with us. We were sitting in on a special rehearsal, because Kenneth Jennings was conducting Carl’s setting of “The Great Litany” and asked for suggestions. The cantor just “wasn’t getting it,” and sang the chants very slowly and metrically. Carl said that he ought to think about singing to the end of the line instead of getting bogged down on every note. Stephen piped up, “Yeah, it has to go faster!” and the whole assembly smiled.
At the same conference, I was honored to have been asked to play one of the main worship services and at its conclusion, several people came up to congratulate me on my playing. One man in particular said, “I really wanted to tell you that you did an OUTSTANDING job of playing the organ.”
Stephen, nearby, chimed in, “My mom ALWAYS does an outstanding job!” Another bystander said, “I see that you have brought your own fan club!”
The world is in a better place because of the life of Kenneth Jennings.