Poster Sigrid Johnson conducted during a St. Olaf Christmas Festival.
Sigrid Johnson conducts the Manitou Singers during a St. Olaf Christmas Festival. She will be honored with a premiere work for women's voices.

Choral legend Sigrid Johnson to be honored with premiere of 'Song in My Heart'

Sigrid Johnson often said, “God gave me two beautiful sons, and every year I’m blessed with 100 daughters.”

She conducted St. Olaf College’s 100-voice first-year women’s chorus, the Manitou Singers, for decades.

And on Oct. 29 at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, the Minnesota choral legend will be remembered just the way she would have wanted it: with beautiful new music for women to sing. 

Jocelyn Hagen
Jocelyn Hagen

Johnson — “Sig” to everyone who knew her — taught at St. Olaf for 32 years before retiring in 2015; she died in March 2022. The combined soprano and alto voices of the St. Olaf Choir and VocalEssence will premiere Song in My Heart, by Jocelyn Hagen. She’ll also be at the piano for the performance, as she was for two years while a St. Olaf student, accompanying the Manitou Singers in rehearsal and concert.

“I thought the world of Sig,” Hagen said. “She was brilliant and had amazing ears, and also was quite demanding and intimidating sometimes. She knew what she wanted, and she didn’t hide her emotions. She made music with such passion.”

That passion wasn’t confined to music-making with her 18- and 19-year-old “daughters.” She conducted all-state high school choirs in 30 states and prepared 150-voice symphonic choruses for Neville Marriner, Edo de Waart, Leonard Slatkin and many other conductors. She served as the conductor of the Dale Warland Symphonic Chorus and was associate conductor of VocalEssence, working closely with artistic director Philip Brunelle, who organized the concert as a launch for VocalEssence’s 55th season.

In an unconventional note above the first bar of her new piece, Hagen tells the singers that the music is “to be sung in tune.” This will make every Manitou Singer, or anyone who ever sang under Johnson, smile, as Johnson was obsessive about in-tune singing.

“Tuning chords was her specialty,” said Hagen, who sang soprano in Manitou her first year. “She taught us to sing in unison really well. You come in your freshman year and you don’t know anybody. This was a great way to feel the music together, and to feel as one. She built her choir’s sound from unison singing.”

Hagen’s Song in My Heart features soaring unison lines on a beautiful text by a Catholic nun, Sister Marie Therese:

Now is a moment between birth and death
That I must fill with song; infinity
Trembles upon my lips with every breath
And must cry for beauty endlessly

“In the months before Sig died, we knew she was getting very sick and did not have much more time with us,” Hagen said. “I knew even then that I wanted to write something for her. And as I wrote this piece, I felt she was with me.”

Here’s hoping that Johnson’s one-of-a-kind ears are tuned to Central Lutheran Church on Oct. 29, as Anton Armstrong conducts the women of his St. Olaf Choir and VocalEssence in the performance.

More info: VocalEssence and the St. Olaf Choir, 4 p.m. Oct. 29, Central Lutheran Church, 333 S. 12th St., Minneapolis. Tickets: $25-$45.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.