Celebrated composer, conductor and educator Dr. René Clausen, conductor of The Concordia Choir for the past 31 years, received the Alumni Achievement Award from his alma mater, St. Olaf College, this fall.
Clausen, a 1974 graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in choral music education, is also the artistic director of the Emmy Award-winning Concordia Christmas Concerts, which have been featured on PBS across the nation.
Long before Clausen knew about St. Olaf or its choir, F. Melius Christiansen or the whole choral Christiansen tradition at St. Olaf, Clausen’s dad told him stories of being in Faribault High School and of Christiansen coming over to guest direct the high school choir.
“I can tell you that I applied nowhere else, I had no interest in going anywhere else, I was going to be in that choir to make that music with that conductor,” said Clausen. “I was very fortunate the last two years of college to be able to sing in the St. Olaf Choir with Ken Jennings. He had the most expressive, beautiful conducting hands and was a tremendous musician. He brought out the best in us. He was demanding but an elegant and a refined artist and I learned much from him.”
Clausen’s mentors at St. Olaf cemented his desire that music be his life’s work.
“I knew in the very depth of who I was that I wanted to be a collegiate-level choral conductor. It was my goal,” said Clausen. “I go back to the primary experiences of the modeling by great teaching that has always remained with me from the time I was a freshman until I graduated and sang my last concert with the St. Olaf Choir. Jennings used to say when you rub shoulders with high arts something rubs off. I’ve not forgotten that with my own students that exposing them to great music is primary.”
In addition to conducting and teaching, Clausen has a vast compositional repertoire of more than 150 choral and orchestra works frequently performed worldwide. He was commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association for its 2003 national convention in New York City and the result was “MEMORIAL,” inspired by the events of 9/11. The composition premiered at Lincoln Center in February 2003 with The Concordia Choir and Orchestra, and again in September 2011 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In 2017, Clausen premiered an oratorio-length work, “The Passion of Jesus Christ,” commissioned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Concordia College and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
“I think I have learned as much or more from my students as they have from me,” he said. “I have great faith. I have great faith in students and I have always tried to make that my focus – ‘they are the why I am there.’”