Music Department icon Axel Theimer to retire after spring semester 2021

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September 28, 2020

By Frank Rajkowski

Axel Theimer

Axel Theimer directs a group during  the 2016 Christmas at Saint John’s concert (photo by Nicole Pederson ’17).

Axel Theimer is now in his 52nd year at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

And, over the course of those five-plus decades, the director of the CSB/SJU Chamber Choir and the SJU Men’s Chorus has been able to travel far and wide.

But ….

“The majority of my travel has been on tours, or for other job-related reasons,” he said. “Not very much of it has been on my own. So I’ve seen large parts of the world, but I haven’t had that many opportunities to spend an extra day or two somewhere and really explore.”

The desire to have more of those opportunities, and to spend more quality time with his family, is why Theimer has decided to retire from his roles as choir director and as a professor in the music department at CSB/SJU at the conclusion of the 2020-21 school year.

“I’m going to be 75 this year and that’s kind of a marker,” Theimer said. “I know it sounds cliché when people say it, but I really do want to spend more time with my family. I have kids and grandchildren now. And all the things connected with my job make it more difficult to move around and be available to do the stuff that I want to do.”

Theimer’s retirement will bring to an end a long and distinguished tenure. It began when the former member of the Vienna Boys Choir and the director of Chorus Viennensis arrived in Collegeville from Austria in the summer of 1969, taking over for Gerhard Track as the choral director at SJU.

“I was young and fearless, and what an opportunity it was to get the chance to go to America and take over at a place like this,” he recalls. “I had known my predecessor in Vienna. And because of that, he recommended me. When the chance came, I leapt at it.”

Since that time, Theimer has become a leading voice (no pun intended) in his field. An active recitalist, he has presented master classes, workshops and seminars at state, regional, national and international conventions and conferences. He has also conducted All State Choirs, Choral Festivals and Honor Choirs in the U.S., Europe and the Far East.

In 2001, he was named the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota’s Choir Director of the Year. Three years later, he was indicted into the Minnesota Music Educators Association Hall of Fame.

In 2011, he received the ACDA-MN lifetime achievement award.

In addition to his work at CSB/SJU, he is also the founder and artistic director of Kantorei (a Twin Cities-based vocal ensemble which started 33 years ago as a CSB/SJU alumni choir to give graduates the opportunity to continue making music together, and is now one of the premiere vocal ensembles in Minnesota), and the Amadeus Chamber Symphony, a chamber orchestra for Central Minnesota musicians.

He is the co-founder and has served as music director of the National Catholic Youth Choir and is a member of the faculty and the executive director of the VoiceCare Network.

“He’s the John Gagliardi of the music department here,” said music department chair David Arnott, referencing the legendary late SJU head football coach who retired in 2012 after 60 seasons in Collegeville and more wins than any coach in college football history.

“He’s been here longer than all of us. In fact, three tenured members of our department weren’t even born yet when he started teaching here. But we’re not just losing that vast amount of institutional memory and a truly-accomplished teacher. We’re also losing all of the things he does – and has done for decades – that aren’t part of his job description. Organizing tours every year, organizing venues, and so much more.

“His light is always the last to go off in the (Stephen B. Humphrey Theater building) each night.”

A search committee will be tasked with the daunting challenge of selecting Theimer’s replacement.

Arnott said the plan is to post the job opening announcement by Oct. 1. Applications will be accepted throughout October. The hope is to conduct interviews in late January and to have a candidate chosen by mid-February.

That person would then begin their job at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“Nobody is irreplaceable,” Theimer said. “It won’t be the same with the next person, but I don’t think anyone should try and make it the same. When I came in, I never wanted to try and follow in my predecessor’s footsteps. He had a completely different personality than me.

“The next person will come in with new ideas. There are plenty of things I never got started because I’d built my own traditions here. So this is a chance to try new things.”

While he will miss day-to-day life at SJU, Theimer said he is looking forward to retirement. His only regret is that his last school year comes at a time when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought a halt to the annual concerts and recitals he has long been at the center of.

“Things will be different than they might have been otherwise, and that’s too bad,” he said. “But there will still be plenty of time to go through the transition and for everybody to get used to the change.”