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Concordia Choir comes full circle with new conductor

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Michael Culloton (left) is set to take over as Concordia College's director of choral activities following René Clausen’s retirement later this year. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
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MOORHEAD — The student has become the conductor for the Concordia Choir.

Hanging above a lineup of accolades inside a rehearsal room at Concordia College’s Hvidsten Hall of Music is a black-and-white photograph emboldened by a powerful message.

In this picture, René Clausen can be seen conducting spiritedly next to his predecessor, Paul J. Christiansen, with the choir’s mission statement written above. The words are simple but enduring:

"The mission of the Concordia Choir is to uphold a sacred choral tradition through the uncompromising and unrelenting collaborative pursuit of musical integrity and spiritual expression."

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Hanging above a handful of plaques with René Clausen's name, students are reminded of the Concordia Choir legacy every time they enter the rehearsal room inside Hvidsten Hall of Music. Ethan Mickelson / The Forum

Just an earshot away in the same building, Clausen sits next to Michael Culloton, who is set to take over as Concordia's director of choral activities. After a storied career of leading the prestigious choir, Clausen’s handover represents another notch in the journey of upholding a sacred choral tradition.

“Have the confidence to bring your own shoes,” Clausen advises his colleague and soon-to-be successor. “Enjoy the daily process of creating the Concordia Choir as well as the splendid moments of concert performance. Family first — choir second.”

The next generation

In his 34 years of conducting the Concordia Choir — he's one of only three people to hold the position in a century — Clausen has impacted the lives and careers of an almost incalculable number of students.

“Michael (Culloton) is a primary example of this,” Clausen says. “I feel comforted, humbled and reassured that while on my watch, I have been able to inspire in my students the same passion and love for the choral art that I have. Now, they will shape and inspire the next generation of choral conductors.”

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In 2018, René Clausen was awarded the Weston H. Noble Lifetime Achievement Award from the North Central Division of the American Choral Directors Association. Concordia College / Special to the Forum

Revered on and off campus, Clausen has spent more than half his life at the helm of the choir. In his role, he has served as the artistic director of the Emmy-winning Concordia Christmas Concerts.

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Clausen is also an internationally renowned composer and arranger, with more than 130 commissioned compositions for famed performances. Among his dozens of awards, he won two Grammy Awards in 2013 for the Kansas City Chorale recording “Life and Breath: Choral Works by René Clausen.”

With the conductorship shifting hands, Culloton is set to take over later this year at the beginning of the fall semester, holding the Paul J. and Eleanor Christiansen Endowed Chair of Choral Music.

“My interest is in helping all of our vocal music education students become the best teachers they can be at whatever age group they decide to work with in the near future,” Culloton says. “Some will be very successful high school teachers, middle school teachers, church musicians and collegiate instructors. Wherever they end up, we want them to find satisfaction in their work.

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Michael Culloton as seen during his first year at Concordia College. His path to musical education began at the same school where he studied under René Clausen. He earned a Doctor of Musical Arts at North Dakota State University where he studied under Jo Ann Miller and Michael Weber. Special to The Forum

Since 2012, Culloton has served as assistant professor of music at Concordia. He has conducted the Concordia Chapel Choir, Kantorei and Cantabile vocal ensembles. Additionally, Culloton has served as an active faculty member teaching music education and church music courses and advised the student chapter of the American Choral Directors Association.

Along with his duties at Concordia, Culloton is the artistic director and conductor of the Fargo-Moorhead Choral Artists and the Minnesota All-State Lutheran Choir, and he conducts the Trinity Lutheran Church Cathedral Choir in Moorhead.

“We are delighted by the artistry, innovation, energy, and love for the Concordia music tradition that Michael Culloton will bring to his leadership of our choral program,” Concordia President William Craft says. “And best of all, students present and future will rejoice to sing here under his guidance.”

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Looking to the future

Following his retirement later this year, Clausen plans to move to Burnsville, Minn., with his wife of 46 years.

“I look forward to spending time with my wife and children, doing more compositions that might take me in different directions, cooking Asian cuisine and lowering my golf handicap,” says Clausen. “My wife Frankie and I also look forward to some travel together and exploring the thriving arts environment in the Twin Cities.”

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René Clausen graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and received his Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Illinois, Urbana. Concordia College / Special to the Forum

While he may be giving up his sharp white bow tie and supremely polished shoes for a seat in the crowd, Clausen is sure to have a sentimental spot in his heart for the choir even as Culloton takes over.

“I’m sure just seeing the blue robes march to the risers for the first time will inspire some nostalgic emotions," he says. "But past that, I’m quite sure I will simply enjoy and revel in the artistry and tradition of excellence Dr. Culloton will bring to the choir.”

As Culloton looks to the future as well, he urges Concordia Choir supporters to celebrate Clausen’s legacy with a gift to the René Clausen Choral Legacy Endowed Fund.

“The Legacy Fund is one of the best ways that we can guarantee the continued success and promotion of The Concordia Choir as we celebrate the legacy of one of America's most influential choral musicians in the last century,” says Culloton. “Gifts to the fund in Rene's honor will help the Concordia Choir to continue presenting concerts to audiences who need this music in their lives, whether they know it or not!”

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A bust commemorates Paul J. Christiansen, who conducted the Concordia Choir for nearly 50 years prior to René Clausen’s (right) appointment. Michael Culloton is seen to the left. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

For more information, visit concordiacollege.edu/clasuenlegacy.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.

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