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Southwest Choral Festival tonight in Windom

WHS students named to the Southwest Choral Festival Honor Choir include (front, from left), Aubrey Anderson, Adyiam Kimbrough, Laura Koepsell, Annie Lesnar, and (back, from left) Ben Doeden, Oliver Wolyniec and Ivan Parga. Missing: Jeremy Majerus. (Ryan McGaughey/Daily Globe)

WINDOM — For the 45th straight year, choristers from the seven Southwest Conference schools will come together in song.

The Southwest Choral Festival is centered in Windom this year, so Rachel Axford, the Windom Area High School choir director for a quarter-century, has shouldered the primary responsibilities for coordinating logistics of the daylong event that involves more than 500 students.

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“Time is always the biggest challenge — making sure we have time for every single group, for each set-up and all the things that go on in advance to make the day run smoothly,” said Axford, who is hosting the Southwest Choral Festival for the fourth time in her tenure to date.

“There are a lot of people at the host site who make it work for everyone,” she continued. “Fortunately, there’s been one custodian on staff who has helped me each time Windom has had it — and we all know custodians make everything run.”

With a 56-voice Honor Choir (featuring eight selected students from each school), about 500 singers in the mass choir, seven choral conductors and two guest clinicians, today’s festival is no small undertaking.

“The Southwest Conference has some of the best kids around, and having all of these singers come together to create something makes it a fantastic event,” Axford said. “Meeting with all the other directors is a joy, and we share ideas and collaborate in advance of the festival.”

Kerry Johnson, director of choral programs at Worthington High School (WHS), is one of Axford’s Southwest Conference colleagues. She has similar praise for the festival.

“Each school brings its top ensemble, so for Worthington, that means the Concert Choir attends every year,” explained Johnson.

“It’s a great opportunity to provide our kids with the chance to sing literature they might not do in their home choirs, it gives them exposure to some of the best conductors in the state and also allows them to hear and appreciate each other’s work,” she added.

Both of today’s festival clinicians are somewhat familiar to WHS students. Dr. Russell Svenningsen, a music theory and applied voice professor who also conducts the Collegiate Chorale at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D., and has served as an adjudicator for the WHS music department, will direct the Honor Choir, while Joseph Osowski, who led the WHS choirs from 2006-09 and is now the choir director at St. Michael/Albertville High School, will be in charge of the mass choir.

“I’ll lead the mass choir in four numbers — ‘For Spacious Skies,’ ‘Loch Lomond,’ a simple round with percussion and Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum,’” reported Osowski, a frequent guest conductor at music festivals around Minnesota and a vocal music judge for state solo/ensemble and large group contests. He recently completed a term on the state board of the Minnesota American Choral Directors Association as Northeast District Chair.

“My favorite is probably the Mozart — it’s hard to beat Mozart and his genius,” Osowski said. “‘Ave Verum’ is the last piece Mozart wrote before he died, and it’s considered to be one of the perfect pieces of music in the canon of choral literature.”

Axford is as enthusiastic about the presence of Svenningsen and Osowski as the latter conductor is about Mozart.

“Dr. Svenningsen works so well with the kids, and he’s known in our area as a great artist,” she shared. “And last year, when we also had terrific guest directors, several of the Southwest Conference directors were chit-chatting that we needed to keep bringing in people with energy and someone said, ‘Get Joe back here,’ so we called him right away.”

Osowski is pleased to return to his former stomping grounds, and to hear how the WHS ensemble has continued to develop in his wake.

“It’s nice to work with a variety of groups, and with choirs of different levels and abilities,” Osowski said of his guest conducting appearances. “I’m really excited about this one, because Kerry [Johnson] has done such a great job, and I like to see her take it to the next level.

“I loved the Worthington kids.”

In fact, Johnson’s 78-voice Concert Choir sang yesterday as an invited solo chorus at the prestigious St. Olaf Choral Festival, and during the 6:30 p.m. concert today they will reprise the tunes they performed in Northfield.

The WHS juniors and seniors named to the Southwest Choral Festival Honor Choir are sopranos Laura Koepsell and Annie Lesnar (juniors), altos Adyiam Kimbrough and Aubrey Anderson (juniors), tenors Ivan Parga (junior) and Jeremy Majerus (senior), and basses Ben Doeden (senior) and Oliver Wolyniec (junior).

The Honor Choir, with Svenningsen at the helm, will deliver two selections: the French “Dirait-on” and the gospel-flavored “Hold On.”

Following individual daytime performances of the individual choirs before either Svenningsen or Osowski, and a morning rehearsal for the Honor Choir, the 500 vocalists join together for a nearly two-hour mass choir rehearsal under Osowski’s baton in preparation for the 6:30 p.m. concert.

“I want to stress that it’s so worth it for people to come, to share that musical passion, to put aside your other worries for the evening and enjoy seeing kids do something great,” said Axford of the concert.

“The students are not competing with each other — they’re building something together through music, and it’s very cool.”

The 45th annual Southwest Choral Festival concert takes place at 6:30 p.m. today in the new gym (enter through Door #6) at Windom Area Middle High School, 1400 17th St., Windom. An admission fee will be charged. The public is welcome to attend.