NORTHFIELD, Minn. — At first blush it would seem that orchestral music and barbershop-style singing would go together like... well... cats and birds, oil and water, bathtubs and toasters... you get the picture.
Not if you ask longtime St. Olaf College orchestra director Steven Amundson, who wrote a fantastic barbershop piece as an ode to his students, especially the seniors, who are missing the final three months of the academic year due to COVID-19. As if penning the composition wasn't enough, he sang and recorded all four parts, lip-synched each on video while dressed in different tuxedos and suits, then had it all edited into a video that has drawn thousands of views on YouTube and Facebook.
"We really miss our orchies, that's certainly true... since you've been away we're definitely feeling blue," Amundson sings in the video. "We miss making music, the kind that is profound, those melodies those harmonies, that glorious sound...."
"He is a huge talent," shared Richard Erickson, former orchestra manager at St. Olaf College and an obvious fan of Amundson.
Amundson's resume would back that up. In his 39 years as director, St. Olaf's orchestra program has carved out a reputation as one of the finest in the nation. He is a prolific composer whose works have been performed hundreds of times by the Atlanta, Cincinnati, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Oregon, Phoenix, San Diego, and Utah Symphonies in the U.S., and internationally by orchestras like the Toronto Symphony and BBC Concert Orchestra in the United Kingdom.
His conducting skills are also considerable, having served as guest conductor for the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra, the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, the Fargo/Moorhead Symphony, and the renowned St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
But there's more to Amundson than sheer talent, insists Erickson, now retired and living in Montana.
"One of the most kind people I've ever known... his care for his students is unbelievable."
That sense of caring is the engine behind the video, a desire to create some laughs and ease the hurt of unfinished business. "I wanted to give them a boost," Amundson says simply. "I wanted to do something fun and I thought I could pull it off."
The conductor recalls the final rehearsal for a concert scheduled for March 15, a big show that included works by Stravinsky, Beethoven, and an appearance by a beloved staff member who was retiring. Amundson's current orchestra manager walked in near the end of rehearsal and he could tell by the look on her face it wasn't good. She proceeded to tell the orchestra that their concert, and the rest of the school year were off, casualties of the coronavirus.
"I looked at the eyes of some of my seniors and saw tears," he recalls. "It literally broke my heart."
The idea for his video valentine actually came from one of Amundson's former students, who posted himself singing barbershop on social media. Steven says he actually sang four-part barbershop harmonies with his dad and brothers as a kid, and while not a virtuoso he knew he could "sing in tune and make some noise."
It only took a week or two to write the piece, but then things got a bit more complicated with recording the vocal tracks and shooting the lip synch videos. "It was a bigger project than I thought it would be," he admits.
A self-described "non-techie," he sent the collection of audio and video media to the son of Richard Erickson, who is a video editor. When the finished product was done, Steven sat his wife down to watch it. At the beginning she was laughing, and by the end there were tears rolling down her cheeks.
"I knew it was hitting the right chord," he recalls.
After posting it on YouTube and Facebook, Amundson heard from current and past students via email and social media whose comments underlined that his video hit its mark.
"I laughed, I cried... I miss it so much," wrote one student musician.
While Steven's intention was to uplift his students and members of the St. Olaf College Orchestra, he admits it was good medicine for him as well. While distance learning takes up a lot of time and energy, there was still a hole in his life that needed filling.
"Admittedly, I'm a little stir crazy like the rest of us," he laughed. "Had some pent-up musical energy."