Wilson’s world: A conversation with the new director of choral activities

Nathan Janzen, Arts and Entertainment Editor

Of the many changes that Viterbo University’s Music Department has experienced over the past year—from the launch of the Conservatory for the Performing Arts to a change in department leadership—one of the most dynamic has been the appointment of James Wilson as Director of Choral Activities. Wilson, a native Midwesterner with longtime ties in choral directing, sat down with the Lumen the week of November 8th to discuss the path that brought him to Viterbo and the unique choral tradition of the Midwest that he has returned to. 

“I’ve always known about Viterbo because I grew up in Minneapolis,” Wilson explained, “but I’ve spent most of my adult life on the East coast. I was in Delaware at Wesley College for eleven years. [Wesley] closed this summer…so I was in need of a job. Luckily, Viterbo became available…and I was fortunate to make it through [the interview process]. I feel very fortunate…to be here specifically. Our programs are more established; there’s a lot of talent [and] potential to recruit larger classes…I’m excited to see what we can build. Ideally, I will be here through the tenure process and for the long haul.” 

When asked about who has inspired him as a director, Wilson recalled a long list of teachers from high school in Plymouth, Minn., to his doctorate program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Piano studies, he says, influenced his musicality and instilled discipline when it came to practice. When he was a vocal performance major undergrad, the seasoned conductor notes: “I learned so much—not only about interpretation, but also how to think about the metaphors in music…” He notes that, due to the “Midwest connection,” many of Viterbo’s faculty know figures from his educational career, including professors and those who taught them. 

“This connection has shown in the conversations I’ve had here,” Wilson explained. “So this is a homecoming in many ways. I feel at home here. I love the singing culture that exists here. I didn’t have that in Delaware. More people grow up singing; more people are exposed to choral singing…in Delaware, it felt more foreign to people.” Part of that culture, Wilson says, “…is a Midwest sound that’s rooted in the Lutheran heritage and certain schools—particularly St. Olaf and F. Melius Christiansen. It’s a hymn-based tone – a smoother tone than on the East coast, which grew out of the Westminster tradition. [Their focus] is more symphonic.” 

It was in this symphonic landscape that Wilson was able to direct some of the most famous works in choral music, including Orff’s Carmina Burana and Haydn’s The Creation. With these experiences behind him, Wilson noted about directing, “When you have more time and a group of singers who have experience, then [the focus] becomes the nuance, the interpretation, [and] sculpting the phrases. That’s where I thrive; that’s where I prefer to be. My job is to facilitate the enjoyment of music, recognizing what brought [the musicians] there in the first place…and [to help] make that experience enjoyable and rewarding.”