Singing praise for a legend: Alums lift their voices to honor Theimer

Academics Campus & Community Music

February 24, 2021

By Frank Rajkowski

It was just a tour stop - one of many Axel Theimer made as a member of the internationally-renowned Vienna Boys Choir.

But something about his brief stay on the Saint John’s University campus in early February of 1958 made a lasting impression on the then-12-year-old Austrian singer.

“We were here for two-or-three nights,” Theimer recalls. “What was great was that the members of the (Saint John’s) men’s chorus at the time made their rooms available to us.

“My roommate and I stayed in the room of a guy (Norm Virnig ’61) who gave us a Saint John’s sweater. And I cherished that thing. It was gray and red and said Saint John’s University on it. I wore it so often back home, even after it got too small for me. Eventually, people had to tell me they didn’t think I could wear it anymore. I literally wore it out.”


That attachment was perhaps a sign of things to come as Theimer would return to Collegeville just over 11 years later – in the summer of 1969 – to take over from Gerhardt Track as the choral director at SJU.

And he has remained here ever since, building a tradition of choral excellence that has now spanned multiple generations.

“He’s been an incredible boon to Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s,” said acclaimed musician John McCutcheon ’74, who sang in choir for Theimer as a student at SJU and has remained close to him over the years.

“He’s benefitted the school in so many ways – some that people won’t even recognize until after he’s gone.”

But, having recently turned 75, the professor in the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University Music Department and director of both the CSB/SJU Chamber Choir and the SJU Men’s Chorus has decided it is now time to step away.


He announced last fall he plans to retire at the conclusion of the 2020-21 school year, leaving a giant void department chair David Arnott said will be difficult to fill.

“He’s the John Gagliardi of the music department here,” said 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.”

Those who’ve learned from and worked with Theimer over the years echo the same sentiments:

“The legacy Axel leaves at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s will be everlasting,” said Ty Cox ’12, who has gone on teach music, as well as embarking on a successful performing career.

“And that’s a credit to his kindness and patience, as well as to how quietly effective he is at getting the best out of people. He’s managed over the years to consistently make great music out of choirs with people who come from all different backgrounds – not all of them musical. But the quality of the music has always remained so high.”

“I didn’t come into Saint John’s as this serious music major with an understanding of classical theory and all that,” added Joe Mailander ’08, who sang in both the Chamber and Men’s Choruses at SJU and has gone on to a Grammy-winning recording career as one half of the children’s music duo The Okee Dokee Brothers.

“I was just a folk musician. But he accepted me for who I was and made a place for me in his choirs. I learned so much from working with him.”

“I went into teaching music and he was a vital part of that process,” said Elizabeth Gust ’07, a CSB alum who taught music in public schools for 11 years and still serves as director of the Twin Cities Girls Choir.

“I knew I could always go to him to ask questions and he was always available to work with my students in different capacities over the years. At the very basic core, he’s a humanist. He cares deeply about people and making a connection with them.”

Getting started

Track, who conducted Theimer when he was with the Vienna Boys Choir, got back to Collegeville first.

And he, in turn, opened the door for his protege.

“He was my choir director,” Theimer said. “In fact, he was the director of the boys choir when we visited SJU. He then took over here, and he was very active when it came to traveling with the Men’s Choir. They came to Vienna several times, and whenever they did, I went to the concerts. So we stayed in touch. And he knew I had been active in conducting (with Chorus Viennensis, the adult performing partner ensemble to the Vienna Boys’ Choir).

“So when he left, he recommended me here.”

Though his initial job title was choral director, Theimer’s role in the early years was really that of a jack-of-all-trades musically speaking.

“Anything you could possibly be asked to do was in my first contract,” he recalls with a chuckle. “There was conducting the men’s chorus and giving voice lessons, teaching music theory classes and even giving piano lessons. I look back on those days now and it seems totally insane. But there was a real push to build the (music) program and increase numbers.

“So we all did everything we had to do to make that happen.”

Even by pitching in when it came to other departments – like athletics. Having played soccer growing up, Theimer was soon asked to take over the head coaching reins of the SJU soccer program – which had only been established in 1967.


He stayed on the job for three seasons – from 1970-72.

“When they heard I was from Europe, and that I had played soccer, some of the guys on the team came to me and asked if I wanted to coach them,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not a soccer coach. I don’t know anything about it.’ But I bought a couple of pamphlets and books about coaching soccer so it at least seemed like I knew what I was talking about.”

Theimer was more at home in the concert hall. And he made an immediate and positive impression on those who were part of his first choir at Saint John’s.

“News traveled slower in those days,” recalls Mark Karnowski ’71, who went on to a long career as a city administrator, including almost 15 years in Princeton, Minnesota before his retirement in 2017.

“So a lot of us weren’t even aware that Gerhardt had left until we showed up back on campus that fall. Then it was just the unknown. Axel had such an impressive resume. But you wondered if his style would be a departure from what we’d been used to. As it turned out, his style was very similar to Gerhardt’s. Which made sense because they’d worked together.


“Axel was basically our age, or just a little bit older. So I’m sure that must have been a bit difficult for him, especially in those days. There is always the temptation to want to hang out with the guys you are in charge of directing. But I thought he balanced that really well. He was easy to relate to, but you knew he was in charge.”

Building the legacy

When Theimer first arrived at Saint John’s, the music departments at SJU and CSB were separate entities.

That soon began to change as the two departments merged into the one that exists today. As part of that process, some of Theimer’s duties began to change while new opportunities opened up.

Chief among them was the formation of a joint choir featuring students at both schools.

“As the time I got here, coordination between Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s was just beginning,” Theimer recalls. “There was no mixed choir yet. We got that started and that became part of my load.

“We didn’t even have a name for it at first. It was just a baroque choral ensemble and we performed music for Christmas. Eventually, that became the Chamber Choir.”


Those Christmas performances eventually grew into the Christmas at Saint John’s performances that have become a holiday staple in Collegeville.

“At first, it was just students getting together around the Christmas tree after the tree lighting ceremony,” he said. “It was rather informal. People would bring some instruments and we just started to make music. But as the tree lighting ceremony became bigger and bigger, more people started to show up. Santa would come and we’d open the Founders Room up to handle the overflow.

“Eventually, we had the idea to turn it into a concert.”

As the choir grew in size, McCutcheon said Theimer began to create opportunities for students to showcase individual talents.

“Most of our rehearsals were over at Saint Ben’s in those days, and there was a pizza place right off the main drag in St. Joe,” McCutcheon said. “Afterwards, he and I, and usually a couple of other students, would go over there to eat. We’d talk and get to know each other better.

“Axel loved folk music. And eventually he broke (himself), I and a Saint Ben’s student off into a trio. And when we’d go on tour with the mixed choir – which is what we called in back then – he’d have us get up and play a couple of songs as part of the show.

“He did that for other students as well. And I always thought it was great way to allow people to hone their individual skills. Because in a big mixed choir, if you don’t have the greatest voice and you don’t want to push yourself, you didn’t have to. But if you’re part of a vocal quartet, and you have to hold down the tenor part, it helps you improve and grow.”

Taking it on the road

Touring also became a key part of the choir experience during Theimer’s tenure at SJU and CSB.

Over the years, his choirs toured Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and most of the U.S. – making memories those who were part of such trips will never forget.

“I just remember how patient he was with all the guys,” Cox said. “He always kept the atmosphere light-hearted. I played a lot of card games with Axel on those bus trips.

“We went to so many interesting places, singing in different churches and other venues all over the country. I saw a lot of the U.S. during my four years at Saint John’s thanks to Axel.”

Theimer said several tours stand out in his mind.

“Our first trip to Europe was through an organization called Friendship Ambassadors,” he said. “It was to Romania, which at the time was run by (Nicolae) Ceaușescu and was one of the most brutal and tightly-controlled communist countries in Eastern Europe. That was an incredible experience for our students to see what it was like to live under that kind of oppression and control. I think they came back with a different understanding of what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain and how much they should cherish the freedoms they had in this country.

“One of the best U.S. tours came during the last year they had January Term here. We went out to the west coast and we sang at all the different state capitols along the way. We stopped at several mission churches along the coast and sang there as well. It was a really wonderful trip.”

A leading voice

In time, Theimer’s influence expanded beyond SJU. He presented master classes, workshops and seminars at state, regional, national and international conventions and conferences.

He 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 inducted into the Minnesota Music Educators Association Hall of Fame.


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

He also became 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.

And he is the co-founder and has served as music director of the National Catholic Youth Choir, as well as being a member of the faculty and the executive director of the VoiceCare Network.

“Music for Axel really is a calling,” said Richard Witteman ’89, a musician who has played with fellow SJU alum George Maurer ’88 since 1984, and who plays trumpet in the Amadeus symphony.

“It’s part of who he is and how he lives. I think it would be hard for him to think of what he’s been doing as just a job. Music captured his soul early on and he’s made it his mission to bring that positive energy out in others.”

But through it all, CSB/SJU has remained Theimer’s home base.

Though he twice interviewed for other jobs – once at a school in Wisconsin early on, and once at the University of North Texas in the 1980s (a job he was actually offered) – he never gave serious thought to leaving.

“I started to develop so many connections here,” he said. “Part of it may be that I come from a country where people don’t move around much. That could explain some of my desire to stay in one place this long. And then there was the stability it provided for my family.

“But there never really was a reason for me to go someplace else. Simply because I felt so comfortable and welcome here. And I had all the artistic freedom anyone could hope to have.”

Those who have known him over the years find it hard to imagine music at SJU without him.

“He’s been such a Saint John’s staple over the years,” Mailander said. “He’s meant so much to that music program. It will be strange to see the transition to someone new. But he should be proud of everything he accomplished there.”

In tribute to Theimer, Gust helped organize a virtual performance video featuring around 188 SJU and CSB choral alumni.

“When the colleges announced Dr Theimer's retirement, I immediately called a fellow choir alumnus and friend - Kim Kuhl,” she said.

“We knew immediately that we wanted to thank Axel for his profound impression on our lives. In most cases, a farewell concert is held for the director and alumni are often invited to come back and sing.

“Because of the (ongoing COVID-19) pandemic, we knew that there would most likely not be a chance to gather alumni together to sing, but we wanted to give his students a way to sing for him again before his departure. We had both been part of virtual choirs since Covid began, and thought this would be a way for singers to share their voices, even though they may be far apart, and help celebrate the director who taught us so much, and who for many, continues to be a large part of why they still sing.”

For his part, Theimer is proud of the tradition he’s built. But true to his nature, he’s quick to share credit with the many students he’s worked with over the years.

“People say I had a positive influence in their lives, and I’m always thrilled when I hear that, but truly I just consider myself lucky I had the opportunity to be here this long,” he said. “Music is such a big part of everyone’s life. I’m grateful to have had the chance to help so many people participate in it over the years.”

The preceding story also appears in the latest edition of the SJU Magazine.

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