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Bemidji Choir celebrates 85th anniversary with Carl O. Thompson Memorial Concert

For the past 85 years, the Bemidji Choir at Bemidji State University has displayed its vocal prowess to tens of thousands of audience members fortunate enough to hear their rich harmonies at concerts and tours around the world.

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Dwight Jilek directs the Bemidji Choir during a rehearsal on Dec. 1, 2021, at First Lutheran Church.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — For the past 85 years, the Bemidji Choir at Bemidji State University has displayed its vocal prowess to tens of thousands of audience members fortunate enough to hear their rich harmonies at concerts and tours around the world.

Following an 80th Anniversary Reunion in 2017, the chance for another celebration couldn’t come soon enough for Bemidji Choir Director Dwight Jilek.

“The energy that came with bringing all of those people together that day was extraordinary,” Jilek said. “This is an extended family that when our students graduate, they graduate into a network that’s not only the people who were their colleagues as students but also people who graduated five, 10, 20 or 50 years ago.”

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BSU Assistant Professor of Music Dwight Jilek conducts the BSU choir during a rehearsal ahead of the choir's 80th reunion in 2017.
Pioneer file photo

As such, around 100 current and former choir students will unite to form the 85th Anniversary Reunion Choir for the Carl O. Thompson Memorial Concert that concludes BSU’s Homecoming weekend at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 18, in the Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex.

This year’s celebration coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Bemidji Alumni Choir, a Minneapolis-based choral group directed by 1975 BSU alumnus Mark Carlson and formed in 1998 by Sarah Aamot in tandem with her master’s recital.

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Alumni Choir members range in age from their 20s to the oldest member, Robert Green, who graduated from BSU in 1957 and continues to support the bass section at 87. He also studied under Carl O. Thompson, who started BSU’s choir program in 1937.

“(Green) is more vibrant than some of my younger singers,” Carlson said with a laugh.

The choral experience

According to BSU senior and Bemidji Choir President Blake Staines, the reunion will allow the singers to realize their similarities and differences in experiences as they relate to the BSU choral program.

“Just seeing the continuation of so many generations of singers, I really think it will put into context the fact that we serve that same responsibility to continue this long, rich tradition for future generations so they can have the same experiences that have enriched our lives in very profound ways,” Staines said.

Staines noted the Bemidji Choir’s regional tour in spring 2022, during which they performed chamber music at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud. He admitted to having a tough semester and that this performance allowed him to process his emotions.

“The music sounded just otherworldly, ethereal in that space. You feel like you’re back in the Middle Ages singing that stuff,” Staines detailed. “I actually started crying during the concert and then just fully broke down after we got off stage. It was such an emotional catharsis that brought all of those emotions I was feeling to the surface and it was a real moment of clarity.”

Growing up on the north shore of Lake Superior, Carlson noted Bemidji Choir’s international tour to France where they performed at the St. Lazare Cathedral in 1972.

This marked Carlson’s first-ever airplane trip overseas and allowed the choir to forge a friendship with an Israeli choir. This also followed the Munich Massacre, a terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Summer Games.

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“I remember standing on the risers in the choir, singing jointly with this Israeli choir and looking up into the dome of the cathedral up above, seeing armed guards with machine guns who were there to protect their choir,” Carlson recalled. “It was such an eye-awakening thing for this kid from a small town. Music brought that experience to me.”

Carlson also performed as part of BSU’s Chamber Singers at the Chartres Cathedral on that same tour.

“At that time, it wasn’t a place where you displayed appreciation by clapping in the church,” Carlson said, “but we gave possibly the most magical concert I ever sang in. To be able to sing these 13th-century pieces that were designed for that cathedral was very magical and the nuns, priests and townspeople gave us a standing ovation, clapping.”

Carlson studied under Paul Brandvik, who was the director of choral activities at BSU from 1967 to 1998. Though retired, Brandvik remains active by directing the Alumni Choir’s signature closing piece, “In the Palm of His Hand,” during the choir’s regular season. He will also conduct this for the Reunion Choir’s performance this weekend.

“We’re excited to share that moment with Brandvik and have that connection that he was (at BSU) for over 30 years,” Jilek mentioned. “Our current students will have that real, tactile connection working with him as so many other people did.”

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Bemidji Choir members rehearse on Dec. 1, 2021, at First Lutheran Church.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

The Reunion Choir will also perform Mbosu Ndlovu’s “Ngothando,” a South African piece that translates to “Through Love” and one that the Bemidji Choir first performed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in October 2020.

“Those students who sang in the pandemic, they kept the legacy of the Bemidji Choir going,” Jilek added. “The message of the piece is needed in our times and represents the many people across the world who are using the mechanism of choral music to bring love to the world, to connect people. In that way, I want to honor those students.”

Nearing the end of his college choir days, Staines left off, “it’s a very special time, especially in my senior year, to be able to participate in the 85th (anniversary). And maybe one day, I’ll be returning as an alumnus and I’ll see how the tradition has been carried forward.”

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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