Seattle women’s chorus heading to Norway
Crossing oceans, creating connections
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
When Joseph To was growing up in Hong Kong, he never dreamed he would someday be directing a choir of Norwegian-American women in Seattle. Now, after having taken them to new performance heights, he will be traveling with them to Norway on a summer concert tour in August of 2024.
The Norwegian Ladies Chorus of Seattle has a long, venerable history. Founded in 1936 by Professor August Werner of the University of Washington, its focus has always been to study and sing music by Norwegian composers. Over time, the group has expanded its repertory to other works in English and the other Scandinavian languages.
The group is very active in the Seattle Nordic community, performing at various festivals throughout the year, including the 17th of May Seattle celebration and the annual Julefest at the National Nordic Museum, both held in Ballard, home to many Norwegian immigrants.
The chorus also offers scholarships to encourage the musical endeavors of students in Seattle’s Norwegian-American community. This year, there will be two awards totaling up to $1,500.
And this year, of course, their fundraising efforts are being expanded, as they are working to get money together to finance their concert tour to Norway next August.
I recently sat down with their director, Joseph To, to talk about his experience with the choir and its plans to tour Norway.
To told me that he first came to the Seattle from Hong Kong at age 17 to study for a degree in music education at the University of Washington School of Music. Somehow things clicked for him on Pacific Northwest soil, and he decided to stay on to study for a master’s degree at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. Upon graduation from there, he took up permanent residence in Seattle.
To got started in music already at age 5, when his mother put him behind a piano keyboard for lessons. “I hated every minute of it,” he said, but he at least got started with the basics. At about age 10, he started playing percussion in his school orchestra, but when he got to middle school, there was no orchestra to play in, only a choir. He knew then that he wanted to be conductor, and he started working with choral groups already at age 12.
Today, To is one of the most active members of the choral community in Seattle. When he is not teaching as part of the Washington Middle School faculty, you will find him teaching and conducting the Magnolia Chorale, the Northwest Girlchoir, and the Seattle Norwegian Ladies Chorus.
“The Norwegian Ladies Chorus was a special challenge,” said To, “because I had no prior exposure to the Norwegian language and culture. There was lot I had to learn.”
But in the end, this may have been an advantage for To and the choir. He had to systematically learn the vowel sounds of Norwegian, and, in turn, was able to share what he learned, along with his in-depth knowledge of vocal technique with the choir. Since he has been conducting them when he was first recruited after the pandemic shutdown, they have made significant improvements.
The choir now has one native speaker singing with them, which is upping the ante even further. They put in hard work at home, too, rehearsing their parts with MIDI files recorded by their pianist, Zhanhong Kuang.
These days, the ladies sound great, as they are getting ready for their tour. While there are no auditions to join, it is expected that everyone attend weekly rehearsals. While their tour itinerary has not been finalized, most likely, they will be traveling to Oslo, Trondheim, and Tromsø, with other stops along the way.
To learn more about the Seattle Norwegian Ladies Chorus, visit their website at nlcofseattle.org, and stay turned here at The Norwegian American for more updates.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.