Wartburg College announces new choir director - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Wartburg College announces new choir director

WAVERLY (KWWL) - The choir director's baton at Wartburg College is being passed to Lee Nelson, lauded as an "extraordinarily gifted young conductor" who will bring "intensity and passion" to the position.  

Nelson is currently the conductor of the St. Cloud (Minn.) State University Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. Since 2005, he has built that program from 68 singers and one vocal music education major to 200 singers and more than 50 vocal education majors today.

In 2005, he won the first-place award in the graduate division of the American Choral Directors Association National Conducting Competition.

"He's an extraordinarily gifted young conductor," said Wartburg Interim President William E. Hamm. "We're very fortunate to have him join our faculty. The amazing thing is the transformation that he has brought to St. Cloud's music department and choral program in just four years."

Hamm said Nelson is "committed to the sacred a cappella repertoire we sing. He's a graduate of a sister institution (Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.) with a mission almost identical to ours, and he is committed to our goal of having one of the finest undergraduate choirs in the nation.  He's just an excellent fit."

Nelson cited Wartburg's "tradition of choral excellence" as a reason he was attracted to the position. In addition to the Wartburg Choir, he will direct the Ritterchor - the men's or "Knights' choir."

"I was drawn to a school with a strong Lutheran choral tradition," he said. "The mission of Wartburg College encapsulates the reasons I went into choral education.  It is an institution of outstanding scholarship, strong core values and filled with musical excellence."

Nelson said "one of the determining factors" in his decision to take the job was the caliber of the Wartburg students he met during the interview process.

Echoing Hamm's comments, he said, "It seems like a perfect fit."

Nelson will succeed Paul Torkelson, who retired in October after 25 years of directing his alma mater's choir.

"Lee Nelson has a good understanding of the Lutheran choral tradition," Torkelson said. "I believe he will bring a great deal of intensity and passion to the position and a strong appreciation and respect for the tradition of the Wartburg Choir and Wartburg College."

An e-mail Nelson received from a Rochester, Minn., vocal music teacher after a recent SCSU choir tour mirrors Torkelson's assessment.

"As a teacher I appreciate your willingness to share your talent with my students. They have a new understanding of tone and breathe energy. They commented on the joy and energy that you gave to each piece, phrase by phrase," he wrote.

"Maestro Nelson comes highly recommended by a wide range of musicians for his breadth of literature, his love of church music, the recruitment of choir members, and his success in mentoring young voices to their full potential.  We look forward to working with him for many years to come," said Dr. Ferol Menzel, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty.

Nelson, who grew up on North Dakota farm, is a 1996 summa cum laude graduate of Concordia with a bachelor of music degree. He continued his studies at Westminster Choir College and earned a Master of Music degree from the University of Arizona in 2003. He will finish his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Arizona in May.

Nelson taught at Blaine High School in Blaine, Minn., from 1996-2002, and was an instructor and conductor at the University of Arizona before moving to SCSU.

He performed in 2000 with the men's ensemble on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" weekly radio show. He is founding artistic director and conductor of the Great River Chorale and the Paramount Festival Chorus and Orchestra, which has performed Handel's "Messiah" at the Paramount Theater and Visual Arts Center in St. Cloud since 2006.

Nelson inherits a rich choral heritage at Wartburg.

Under Torkelson, a 1976 Wartburg alumnus, the Wartburg Choir gained national acclaim. A Washington Post review in 2004 described the choir's "enthralling concert" at the Kennedy Center under the headline, "A mighty fortress of skill."

Torkelson also led the choir on regular and numerous European and African tours.  Last year, the choir traveled to Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Luxemborg, Switzerland, and South Africa. Iowa-born opera star Simon Estes accompanied the choir on the month-long journey.

Torkelson took a leave of absence in 2008-09 to work at MidAmerica Productions in New York City, arranging concerts at Carnegie Hall and conducting a summer opera festival in Greece.  He decided to stay on in that position.

Torkelson believes the choir is in good hands with Nelson.

"I am proud to have served my alma mater for 25 years," he said, "and I look forward to hearing the choir in the future under Lee's direction.  I wish him the best for future success with the choir."

"His background, experience, and musicality will be a contribution to the college and department, and will allow the choral program to continue to thrive," said Dr. Karen Black, professor of music and the department chair.

Nelson hopes to build on the existing tradition.

"It is my hope to expand upon Christmas with Wartburg. This powerful concert is a staple in the community, and I feel that I can bring some new ideas that will create an even larger impact on the audience," Nelson said.

Weston Noble, the renowned former Luther College choir director now retired, directed the choir on an interim basis this year. Nelson previously has worked with Noble.

Nelson's wife, Rachael, also is involved in music.

She taught elementary music for 10 years and started a Kindermusik business (music classes for infants through 6 year olds).  She is currently director of youth and family ministries (prekindergarten to sixth grade) at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Cloud and serves as conductor of the Bethlehem Lutheran Children's Choir in St. Cloud.  

The Nelson have two children - Emma, 7, and Jonah, 3 - and are expecting their third child in early May.

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