Documentary will feature legendary Minnesota choir director
STILLWATER, Minn. — Erik "Doc" Christiansen expected greatness from his students—and he got it.
Christiansen, a choir director at Stillwater Area High School for 28 years, routinely asked his students to sing pieces that "really were probably too challenging for us," said Katelyn Larson, a former student.
"But he held us to a high standard, and we always met it," Larson said. "The more he believed in us, the more we believed in ourselves."
When Christiansen retired in 2016, hundreds of former students came to his final school concert at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi and sang a piece that had been commissioned for the occasion.
Now a former student is making a documentary about the alumni choir and the legendary choir director.
Roger Williams, who sang in the choir in 1993, is producing "His Voices - A Short 'Doc'umentary" and has turned to crowd sourcing to get it funded.
The film features interviews with alumni, photos and video clips of the alumni choir singing "When Music Sounds," a piece arranged by René Clausen, the conductor of the choir and a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, based on the Walter de la Mare poem.
Sonia Esch, a former Christiansen student who teaches music at Rutherford Elementary in Stillwater, arranged for the commission. She asked Larson, who teaches choir at Stillwater Area High School, to organize a small alumni choir.
"Sonia asked if we could get a quartet or an octet together," said Larson, a soprano. "I put something out on Facebook and sent out an invitation to see if we could get 10, 15 people to come back and put some time and effort into this project. I was thinking 15 to 20 people max."
Within days, more than 200 alumni had signed up to participate.
The choir was so large that the concert had to be moved from Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater to St. Andrew's, Larson said.
"We rehearsed in a separate building so Doc didn't know we were there," Larson said.
Williams, 43, of Stillwater, said he knew the concert was going to be worth documenting. He arranged to interview many of the alumni who flew in for it.
"Everyone kept saying the same thing about being in Doc's choir: It was the first time that they had ever been part of something that involved world-class excellence," said Williams, who sang bass. "For some, like me, it was their only brush with that level of performance, that level of dedication."
When Williams was in the concert choir, the choir traveled to Seattle to perform in a competition. His mother, Marjorie Williams, served as a chaperone.
Parents of singers in other choirs would hear the Stillwater Area High School choir and ask Marjorie Williams for Christiansen's secret, he said.
"They wanted to know how he got a choir to sound that way because it didn't sound like a high school choir," Williams said.
All in the family
Christiansen, who continues to live in the Stillwater area, comes from a long line of talented choir directors.
His late father, Paul J. Christiansen, was a composer and longtime choral director at Concordia College. When Stillwater Area High School opened in 1993, the school district commissioned Paul Christiansen to write "The River Flows On," which an alumni choir and orchestra sang at the dedication.
Erik Christiansen's grandfather, F. Melius Christiansen, founded the St. Olaf College Choir. Among his compositions was "O Day Full of Grace," now Stillwater Area High School's signature song. A few years ago, members of the concert choir, dressed in bathing suits, started singing "O Day Full of Grace" in the swimming pool of the Quality Inn & Suites during a choir trip to Ames, Iowa.
The video of that watery performance has been viewed more than 4.7 million times. Erik Christiansen missed the performance; he was in his hotel room taking a nap.
"He expected us to know pretty complex music and also complex execution of the music," former student Autumn Compton says in the documentary. "He taught us the steps of how to do it, and then he expected us to rise to that occasion every time. He saw that in us all the time, and so we started to see it in ourselves."
Students knew that Christiansen, who has a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in choral music from Arizona State University, could have been teaching at the college level, Compton said.
"This was somebody who could be someplace else, but he was choosing to be with us," she said. "He was a character. He was kind of a mad genius directing us."
Christiansen was a stickler for getting things right, said Larson, 28, of St. Paul.
"He was just incredibly attentive to detail. Always," she said. "I remember that we could spend half of a rehearsal working on eight measures of a piece of music."
Christiansen didn't necessarily look for students with perfect pitch when holding auditions, Williams said.
"He wanted (students) who maintained eye contact, really tried, and that, when he corrected you, you could be corrected," Williams said. "With that, he'd say, 'OK, this person has promise.'"
Williams said he hopes "His Voices" will help demonstrate the worth of music programs in public schools. Many of the alumni interviewed in the documentary are musicians, choir directors and music teachers, he said.
"This is an example of the power of a public music education," he said. "If you don't think it's worth anything, well guess what? Many of these students became teachers themselves and are teaching your kids."
He said the title of the documentary—"His Voices"—came from a quotation from an alumnus who said performing in the final concert "was like all of his voices coming together to sing once again."
Christiansen was steeped in Lutheran choral tradition and knew how to get entire sections to "sound like one voice," Williams said.
"That's so important," Williams said. "Doc and his father and grandfather helped develop the 'Minnesota choral sound,' where all the members of a section blend together."
When Larson was a senior, the choir traveled to Chicago and performed a concert for women inmates at the Cook County Jail.
"We sang in a big gymnasium, and there were a bunch of fans going, so the environment was not an ideal space to sing in, but that didn't matter at all," Larson said. "The women were cheering so loudly after every piece, and some of them were crying. I couldn't even look at Doc.
"Everyone was just looking out at these women, who never get to hear this kind of music," she said. "It was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had."
Williams said he is working on a final edit, color correction, sound and distribution. He expects the film, which will run about a half-hour, to be available for purchase at the beginning of next year; the cost is $10 for a digital copy and $25 for a digital copy plus DVD.
At Christiansen's final concert choir performance at St. Andrew's, the alumni choir joined the concert choir for the final song: "O Day Full of Grace."
"I'm so undeserving of these people who have come through my life," Christiansen said at the concert. "How lucky I am. Of course, I always said, 'We must inspire each other for this to work.' All right, that's it."
With that, the choir sang:
O day full of grace which we behold,
Now gently to view ascending,
Thou over the earth thy reign unfold,
Good cheer to all mortals lending,
With joy we depart for the promised land,
And there we shall walk in endless light.