Robust heritage sings strong for Norwegian Male Chorus
The Seattle’s Norwegian Male Chorus is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year and for the 105th time will join other Norwegian men’s choruses from the West Coast in Sangerfest, this year at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Harry Solheim no longer has the knees he was born with, but his bass voice still rings true.
And like many of the others in Seattle’s 125-year-old Norwegian Male Chorus, his ability to “snakker Norsk” isn’t what his parents’ was, the once familiar words getting lost with time.
But week after week, year after year, decade after decade for the past 75 years, Solheim, 92, has gone to chorus practice. Through the up and down beats of life — the births of children, death of a spouse and, increasingly, of his colleagues, Solheim has turned out to sing.
They sang when World War II made them practice with dark-curtained windows and members were missing because they were serving overseas. They performed for Kings Olav and Haakon. They sang at the Salt Lake City Mormon Tabernacle and Benaroya Hall. They toured Norway in concert many times, including last summer, and used to fill the performance halls in Seattle for concerts.
And after more than a century, the chorus still thrives, carrying on the mission of sharing Norwegian culture.
While there once were more than 500 Norwegian men’s choruses in the U.S., there are now only about 30. Eleven of them are on the West Coast, with six in Washington. The rest are in the Midwest, according to the Pacific Coast Norwegian Singers Association. While the numbers have declined and the membership diversified, those who belong are passionate and dedicated to the cause.
It’s a terrific culture, said the Seattle chorus’ youngest member, Howard Slauson, 55.
“Norway has a clean, green lifestyle,” he said. “Funny how the world has come around to value that.’’
The Seattle chorus is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year and for the 105th time will join other Norwegian men’s choruses from the West Coast in Sangerfest, the annual joint performance, this year scheduled for June 21 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.
Joining Seattle will be Tacoma’s chorus, founded in 1888 as the Normanna Male Chorus; the relatively new Poulsbo Vestre Sund Mannskor, which was created about 10 years ago; Everett’s 111-year-old Norwegian Male Chorus; and those from Bellingham, Skagit County and choruses throughout Oregon and California.
Solheim, and his comrades in song, are getting ready. Not only is Solheim the oldest member of the Seattle chorus but the one with the longest membership in what still is one of the largest of the West Coast Norwegian men’s choruses in the Pacific Coast Norwegian Singers Association.
Seattle has 33 members who practice weekly at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard.
When they join with the other choruses, there will be 150 men on the McCaw stage.
“We’re going to imitate French horns,’’ said Alf Lunder Knudsen, a longtime member and one of the directors of the Seattle group.
Knudsen stood before the group at the Nordic Heritage Museum the other night, his arm raised and ready to give the down beat.
“What’s the problem there? Just blow through your lips,’’ he said. They began.
“I can’t read the notes,’’ someone muttered.
“Put your glasses on,’’ Knudsen shouted.
Solheim lives in Mukilteo and for many years has made the trip to practice for one simple reason: “I like to sing.’’
The other night he was in the front row. Steady. Solid. A man whose words are like a dash of aquavit — just now and then and well remembered.
His father was once in the chorus, so joining as a teenager was easy. It was just the manly, Norwegian coming-of-age thing to do, sing of the sea and the outdoors and of a country that stands for both.
“I have been associated with the chorus as long as I can remember,’’ he said. “My dad and uncle used to practice at home. Singing was very important.”
Solheim’s two sons joined too, for a while. But their busy lives caused them to drift away. That’s increasingly the case with Norwegian men’s choruses, and they are all looking for members.
Now, they even accept their old adversaries, the Swedes, and pretty much anyone with a yearning to learn about Norwegian culture and song.
Slauson, for example, is unsure if he is second-, third- or fourth-generation Norwegian and barely knows lutefisk from lefse.
Everett Norwegian Male Chorus member Allen Feris said the closest he comes to having Scandinavian blood “is getting a transfusion in a Minnesota hospital.’’
According to the U.S. census, there are as many people claiming Norwegian heritage in the U.S. as there are people in all of Norway — about 5 million.
Ethnicity aside, the choruses are keeping the old traditions alive, say the members.
The time when Norwegian men’s choruses were at the height of popularity in the Northwest was the early part of the 20th century, when in Seattle a lutefisk dinner could be a fundraiser; when it was unimaginable to have a community supper that didn’t involve potatoes; when if you sang the Norwegian anthem, Ja, Vi Elsker, nearly one-third of Seattle’s population knew it because by 1910 Norwegians were the largest ethnic group in the city, more than 31 percent of the population, according to historylink.org.
Slauson, the youngest, and Solheim, the oldest of the Seattle group, love the music.
“The music is ... robust, manly music. We sing of the ocean. Things that resonate with me personally,’’ Slauson said.
Member Ted Ormbrek’s grandfather was a founding member of the Seattle chorus, and he grew up hearing the stories of the chorus singing at Norway Day at the Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 when thousands packed the auditorium on the University of Washington campus for Sangerfest.
Marven Hansen left the chorus to go to war in 1941 and came back only two years ago to resume his place singing bass next to Solheim.
His reasons for committing to the weekly practice are the same as Solheim’s.
“I just like to sing.’’
Nancy Bartley: email@example.com or 206-464-8522