C omposing a
Amid conducting, teaching and raising a family,
St. Olaf Orchestra conductor Steven Amundson
is ﬁnding time at last to write music.
LIFE x u h
The inspiration to compose, a sort of nudge from on high,
By Elizabeth Child came six months after his father, James, died in 1994. Amundson
wrote the Christmas piece “Angels’ Dance,” inspired by the popular
Christmas carol “Angels We Have Heard on High,” in his father’s
J ust as readers often dream of writing, many musicians
would like to compose. Few, however, are willing to
expend the patience and perspiration of putting pen to paper.
St. Olaf Orchestra conductor Steven Amundson — seated in an
honor. “We were very close,” he says.
Amundson’s composing talent was apparent early on. When
young Steven would make up tunes rather than practice his
assigned piano music, his father would stand beside him and say,
office stacked with texts, class papers and music scores — says he “Steve, that’s really pretty good. Why don’t you write that down?”
placed himself in that category for years. “I thought of composing The boy would reply that he was just playing around. “It’s fun to
as something I’d do someday,” he says. Since he joined the St. Olaf create,” he acknowledges, “but it takes time to write it out.”
College faculty at age 25, Amundson, now 48, has devoted his The St. Olaf Orchestra performed “Angels’ Dance” on the
time to teaching, starting a family and raising the national and national broadcast of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival in 1995 and
international reputation of the St. Olaf Orchestra. 1997. Since then, 50 orchestras have performed the piece a total of
about 200 times. “It is a welcome addition to the
symphonic Christmas repertoire because it is a fresh
and engaging treatment of a familiar Christmas carol,”
says Michael Krajewski, principal pops conductor
of the Houston Symphony. Kjajewski has performed
“Angels’ Dance” with the Houston Symphony, the
New Mexico Symphony and the Orlando Philhar-
“He has to be one of the most played living
composers of Christmas music for orchestra,” says
Richard Erickson ’66, associate manager of Music
Organizations at St. Olaf. He and Amundson have
co-founded Tempo Music Resource to promote the
Amundson has composed five holiday-themed
pieces, three of which have been performed in the
St. Olaf Christmas festival: “Sola Gratia” (Grace
Alone), “Rejoicing” and “Joyous Noel,” a work for
handbell choir and orchestra. He completes one com-
position per year, on average, and always his some-
thing in the works. “I felt there was a void,” he says.
“There wasn’t enough good-quality music I could use
for Christmas Fest. There’s plenty of secular Christmas
music, such as ‘Nutcracker’ and ‘Sleigh Ride,’ but those
wouldn’t be appropriate for a sacred program.”
“MAKING MUSIC SHOULD BE A JOYOUS EXPERIENCE,” SAYS COMPOSER
AND CONDUCTOR STEVEN AMUNDSON, KNOWING THAT HUMOR LIGHTENS
THE PLAYERS’ MOOD AND REDUCES STRESS. AT LEFT, THE 2003–04
ST. OLAF ORCHESTRA BEFORE ITS AUTUMN TOUR.
18 St. Olaf Magazine
the enthusiasm of younger musicians inspires him. He calls the
Opening Notes St. Olaf Orchestra “a professional orchestra with a big heart.”
The fifth and youngest child in a family with two singing quartets, A genial, exuberant man, Amundson has a youthful, athletic
Amundson started piano lessons at 4 and read music from a young frame and an aerobic conducting style. He rises up and down
age. He sang in choirs and developed a love for brass and wind on his toes to keep tempo, and the 90-member orchestra responds
instruments. He learned to play the trumpet in fifth grade, the in kind. “People say we look like a big organism or like waves
euphonium in sixth grade and the trombone in eighth grade. in an ocean,” says former St. Olaf Orchestra violinist Lindsay
By ninth grade Amundson was asked to conduct the high school Schumacher, who graduated last spring.
choir, but he turned down the opportunity. “I was too shy,” he says.
When he entered the music department at Luther College, his
father’s alma mater, “I just soaked it up,” he says. As a college
senior he became director of the college’s
jazz ensemble, calling it “one of the great BORN: Brooklyn, N.Y., 1955
opportunities to develop leadership skills.” RAISED: Waterford, Wis. (near Milwaukee)
Composing was still a fledgling interest. EDUCATION: B.A., Luther College; master of music,
During college, Amundson would write the Northwestern University
occasional piano ditty for a sweetheart.
HONORS: International Conducting Competition
“Those weren’t meant to be shared with Hans Häring Prize, sponsored by the Mozarteum
anyone else except one person,” he says, and National Austrian Radio, 1980; Orchestra
shaking his head in embarrassment. Educator of the Year, Minnesota Music Educator’s
Amundson went on to earn his master’s Association, 1992; Carlo A. Sperati Award for meri-
torious achievement in music, Luther College, 1995.
degree in orchestral conducting from
Northwestern University and to study at ORCHESTRAS THAT HAVE PERFORMED AMUNDSON’S
the University of Virginia and the Aspen COMPOSITIONS: Akron, Atlanta, Cincinnati,
Columbus, Detroit, Houston, Long Beach,
Music School. He held conducting positions
Louisiana, New Mexico, Orlando, Rhode Island and
at the University of Virginia and Tacoma Virginia symphonies
Community College and was music director
DAVID GONNERMAN ’90 MUSIC AVAILABLE FROM: Tempo Music Resource
of the Tacoma Youth Symphony.
(www.tempomusicresource.org), Neil A. Kjos Music Co.
Throughout his college and early teaching career he dabbled (www.kjos.com) and MMB Music Inc. (www.mmbmusic.com).
with playing cello, viola and violin. “I never aspired to become a
skilled string player,” Amundson says. “I intended to learn all I
could about the stringed instruments so I could speak their Amundson currently has six works in progress. Midwinter
language on the podium.” breaks and summers are the best times to compose. He spends up
He joined the St. Olaf faculty after winning the coveted Hans to seven weeks a summer at the family lake cabin in Ely, Minn.
Häring Prize at the International Conducting Competition spon- There, he involves his family — wife, Jane, a teacher, and their
sored by the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. While studying at children, Beret, 11, and Karl, 8 — in hiking, boating, cross-country
the Mozarteum, he met musician and St. Olaf graduate Melinda skiing and, of course, composing.
Ramseth ’79, who recommended him to the St. Olaf Music With infectious creativity, Amundson burst into song while
Department. “I remember my fervent prayers that the offer would driving to the cabin last summer and composed his latest holiday
come my way,” Amundson says. “The orchestra’s passion drew work, “Reindeer Rock.” His children contributed rhyming lyrics
me to the college.” from the backseat. Karl even suggested the title.
His first priority was to raise the quality and reputation of the Written for orchestra and children’s choir, “Reindeer Rock”
St. Olaf Orchestra to new heights. Time magazine recently dubbed expresses a light sense of humor and an affinity for jazz. The Houston
the ensemble “one of the best college orchestras in the nation.” Symphony performed the piece in its 2003 holiday concerts.
During the orchestra’s tour of Eastern Europe in 1998, a critic for a “Composing is a humbling thing. It’s a gift,” Amundson says.
Slovak music magazine found it “paradoxical” that a student “When I get a great idea, I think it comes not from me but from
orchestra was one of the highlights of the Spring Music Festival, somewhere else. I hope my composing will be a good model for
which featured professional ensembles. my students.”
Although he once dreamed of conducting a professional
orchestra — and has since guest conducted the Saint Paul Elizabeth Child owns a communications firm in Northfield. She
Chamber Orchestra, among others — Amundson discovered that wrote about Cantus in the fall 2003 issue of St. Olaf Magazine.
January 2004 19