When Rene Clausen announced his retirement in front of the collected choirs, there was a stunned silence that followed. The presence in the room was as if a death had just been announced. The emotion of hearing a beloved faculty announce their leave was a shock to the many students who have had the privilege to work with a great teacher and mentor. Rare is the moment in a lifetime that one gets to work with the best of the best. Rarer still is the best of the best teaching at the school you attend. As a musician, I have always strived to be with the very best. That pursuit of excellence is what brought me to Concordia, culminating through my time spent learning from Clausen in The Concordia Choir and other courses. With the retirement of Clausen a looming reality, I took a moment to ponder the impact that he had on this school. The conclusion I came to was this: Rene Clausen, in his pursuit for musical excellence and beauty, has made a fundamental and positive impact on the very foundation of this school.
The first example of this impact is the Christmas concerts. One of the largest events of the year at Concordia, the concerts are a long standing tradition that predate Clausen’s 33 years of service. However, with Clausen’s artistic vision, the concerts have expanded into the powerhouse productions that they are today. It has come to the point where the 2016 concert was taped for television broadcasting, and subsequently won an Emmy. This is in large part due to the storytelling that Clausen programs into the music making. Every year, the concerts have a theme, with recent years including “Gather Us in, O’ Child of Peace”, “From Heaven, He Came Down”, and “For the Beauty of the Earth”. Every year, music is programmed to fit the theme, with the direction of Clausen, Michael Culloton, and Kevin Suetterlin. Each ensemble prepares individual music to signify a part of the story telling in the framework of the theme. Then, mass pieces for all ensembles are prepared to tell vital parts of the story. Along with this preparation is the tradition of the concerts. “Silent Night” is always performed with audience participation. But a new tradition has also been added in the tenure of Clausen: the singing of the Compline Evening Prayer. Every Christmas Concert is ended with “Compline”, and has become an integral tradition in the music of the concerts.
The second impact is the music making of The Concordia Choir. One of the best parts of this school is the level of music making in all of the ensembles. Each ensemble has a unique and beautiful sound, carefully cultivated by the passion and dedication of the ensemble directors. The dedication and passion Clausen displays through his music making is exemplified in the sound of The Concordia Choir. Clausen expects much from the choir. Often, he will say to his choir “To whom much is given, much is expected”. He reinforces healthy singing practices, and is always working towards creating the best sound possible by using “pools of color” rather than forcing a blend,focusing on the shaping of vowels and tone quality. But perhaps the quality that most impacts the choir is the obvious love he has for his students. He loves to tell jokes and make quips, often making the choir laugh. It would be easy to demand excellence by being strict and authoritarian during the rehearsal process, but Clausen is not like that in the slightest. He teaches with such a love for working students and does not raise his voice or belittle students. Even when working through mistakes, he remains calm and poised with singers, but is always honest with what he wants. Singers love to sing for him and are always willing to follow him in whatever ideas he may have.
It is a dream come true to sing for Clausen. I count myself blessed to be part of something so much larger than myself. I am humbled to part of his final choir next year. In context of the college, it is the end of an era–an era of beautiful music making. Clausen has instilled a profound love of music making and humanity in this college. It is evident in every concert, every rehearsal, and every class. No matter how dark life can get, he always sees the light at the end of the tunnel. This school has been fundamentally changed by Clausen’s vision and presence. We have been blessed with 33 years of music making, and look forward to getting one more year to enjoy the brilliance of Rene Clausen.