This is a love story, of sorts, between a middle-aged, but still-famous, Kansas City rock band and an ancient Norwegian women’s chorus.
Kansas City roots rockers The Rainmakers, who hit their recording apex in the late 1980s, are still enormously popular in Norway — after all, their first live album, in 1990, was titled "Oslo-Wichita Live," with half recorded in each city.
And they still spend a lot of time touring there, which is how they met a woman named Julie Rudi, who is a member of the esteemed Women’s Choral Society of the University of Oslo.
They hit it off right away.
“I’m not into choral music at all, but this choir just completely blows me away,” says Pat Tomek, the Rainmakers’ drummer. “Julie gave us a CD of Christmas music they did a a few years ago, and it was just wonderful.”
Whether it’s a traditional Norwegian folk song or a piece by a contemporary composer from Norway, the chorus’s blend of voices is entrancing — even haunting — as it soars through songs.
So when the Rainmakers found out that the Women’s Choral Society (Kvindelige Studenters Sangforening in Norwegian) wanted to trace the steps of that group’s 1948 tour, and that they wanted to stop in Kansas City, Tomek started working the phones. A few calls later, with help and sponsorship from the Olathe Public Library, they’d booked a concert for Monday at MidAmerica Nazarene University.
For the members of the Choral Society, the group is far more than just a choir.
“It’s truly become a big part of everyone’s lives,” says member and pianist Sara Aimée Smiseths. “You have to spend a number of hours not just in rehearsals, but singing at home, and we always sing by heart, without music onstage. We also have a lot of committees to do things like organize this tour.”
There’s a tradition and culture of university choirs in Scandinavia, Smiseths explains. Every three years, students from all across the country gather at the Nordic Student Singer Summit, she says, “so we can meet and with sing with strangers from other choirs.”
Though her choir is called the official female choir of the University of Oslo, Smiseths says, “but we’re not all students, and the students in the choir are from different colleges and universities. We range from 18 or 19 all the way up to forty.”
Smiseths emphasizes the importance of the choir for all Norwegian women.
“We were founded in 1895, only thirteen years after women gained access to the universities in Norway,” Smiseths says.
“It wasn’t a political thing, originally. It was a chance just to sing together, but it was significant to women at a university where there were few women.”
Theirs, she says, is the oldest women’s academic choir in the world.
“At least we haven’t found any other women’s choirs that are that old. Very few of the original members are still in the choir,” she adds wryly.
In addition to being one of the oldest choirs, they are rated as the top women’s choir in the world by the Interkultur, an organization devoted to uniting the people of the world with choral music.
That’s certainly what happened with the Rainmakers.
“I think it’s an amazing chance for people to hear something they’d like without knowing how much they’d really like it,” Tomek says. “I’d hate for people to miss out on this, because it might be another 70 years before they come back.”
“In 1948,” says Smiseths, “we had a three-month tour of the U.S., and for this tour, we’re keeping to the same tradition. We have some traditional Norwegian music, like the Grieg” — piano pieces by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg to commemorate what would be his 175 birthday — “and we always have some more contemporary pieces as well. As long as the choir has existed, we’ve worked with contemporary composers, and expanded the repertoire for women’s choirs, at least in Nordic countries.”
In addition, the group will perform in traditional Norwegian clothing, known as bumad, with different kinds from different regions of Norway.
“We did the same thing in 1948,” she says, laughing. “We all have to bring it in our luggage. It takes up quite a bit of space.”
More space, probably, than all the gear an aging American rock band has to haul around Norway.
The Women’s Choral Society of the University of Oslo (Kvindelige Studenters Sangforening), 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 26, at MidAmerica Nazarene University's Bell Cultural Events Center, 2030 E. College Way, Olathe, Kansas, 66062. Admission is free, but donations to help finance the choir’s tour will be accepted.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.