Queen attends U.S. premiere of “The Stranger”

Together in Hope concert celebrates supports refugees, celebrates diversity

Photo courtesy of Together in Hope Project
Artistic Director Mark Stover conducts the Together in Hope Choir at the U.S. premiere of Kim André Arnesen’s “The Stranger” at the Ordway Concert Hall in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 15. Queen Sonja of Norway was in attendance as part of her four-day tour in Minnesota.

The Norwegian American

We carry tears in our eyes:
good-bye father, good-bye mother,
We carry soil in small bags: 
may home never fade in our hearts …
    — Wang Ping

So opens “The Stranger,” a new choral work by contemporary Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen. The work saw its world premiere at the St. Olavsfest last July with the Together in Hope Choir at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, one of the largest cultural events in Norway. Then last month, on Oct. 15, the U.S. premiere took place at the Ordway Concert Hall in St. Paul, Minn., with Queen Sonja of Norway in attendance.

“The Stranger” was commissioned by the Together in Hope Project, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities. Founded in 2017 by Gary Aamodt and Celia Ellingson, its purpose is to create “unique, music-anchored projects to address a need and an opportunity for healing and reconciliation.”

In their program notes, Aamodt and Ellingson write: “It is our hope that ‘The Stranger’ will awaken and activate all who hear it to work for a world where all are respected, included, and welcome.”

The Together in Hope Choir has brought together about 50 artists from the Twin Cities area to carry out its mission. This past year, they have partnered with the USA for UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) on “The Stranger.” Using music as the universal language, it is their hope to raise awareness and empathy for over 100 million people who have been displaced from their homes worldwide.

“The Stranger” is drawn from work initiated by António Guterres, who now serves as secretary-general of the United Nations. Before that, Guterres was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He has worked closely with faith leaders, humanitarian organizations, academics, and international government representatives to promote the values of “humanity, caring, and respect, and the traditions of granting protection in danger.”

The starting points for the composition are the poems that refugees from countries all over the world have written describing their journeys to new lands to find new homes for themselves. Interspersed are Biblical passages and other thematic poetry. The message is multicultural and ecumenical.

Photo: Ole Wuttudal
Kim André Arnesen is known around the world for his choral compositions.

The work is divided into three principal sections: “The Plight of the Stranger,” “We are All Strangers Somewhere,” and “We Journey Together in Hope,” to mirror the progression of the refugee journey from displacement to inclusion in a new home where they are embraced and finally accepted.

The language of the texts is clear, making use of simple syntaxes, but no less lacking in impact for that. With a clearness and pureness of expression, they have a genuine quality that is relatable. Their meaning can easily be understood and are relatively accessible to newcomers to the English language.

It is somehow no surprise that the Together in Hope Project would turn to Norwegian contemporary composer Kim André Arnesen to commission the music for this work. Born and educated in Trondheim, his compositions are some of the most frequently performed choral works in the world.

As a child, Arnesen studied classical piano and was a chorister in the famous Nidaros Boys’ Choir, and later, he was educated at the Music Conservatory in Trondheim. Today, he focuses solely on composing choral music.

Arnesen’s music has been described as “beautifully evocative and calming.” His music can also be described as eclectic in nature, incorporating elements of baroque, contemporary, classical, and popular music.

The Together in Hope Project is an idealistic nonprofit organization that focuses on “the transformative power of music on issues of our shared humanity.”

Of “The Stranger,” Arnesen writes: “The music for ‘The Stranger’ is not written in a strictly Western classical style but rather contains elements from many different traditions. Many will have associations with the Middle East, but I have tried to create a tonal language based on different genres and traditions. … So even though the foundation is classical, I would assert that ‘The Stranger’ has turned out to be a genre-defying work. We find elements from folk and traditional music, world music, pop, and jazz.”

In this way, Arnesen’s eclectic approach with “The Stranger” weaves together a multicultural musical tapestry. Strictly speaking from a musical point of view, the score can at times be jarring, as the music operates on a symbolic level.

The performance at the Ordway with the Together in Hope chamber orchestra and choral ensemble under the direction of Artistic Director Mark Stover, working together with Executive and Artistic Director Brian A. Schmidt, touched the hearts of many. It was a moving moment when the audience—which included many local refugees—gave the performers a steady round of applause and standing ovation.

At the Sunday service at Mindekirken in Minneapolis the next morning, Queen Sonja most eloquently expressed the universal message of “The Stranger.”

“The extraordinary concert I attended last night …also reminded us about everything we have in common as human beings in a global community. The concert made a deep impression on me, and I hope that will we keep this in our hearts that there is more to connect us than to divide us a human beings, no matter where we live and who we are.”

Wise words for us to follow as we all go forth together in hope.

To learn more, visit the Together in Hope Project website at togetherinhopeproject.org.

This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.