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St. Olaf Choir gives extra lift to Nike ad

By Tom Vogel
March 1, 2007

Minnesota Public Radio's John Birge describes it as "the unlikely but perfect soundtrack" to a new Nike commercial dramatizing the emotional final seconds of a high school basketball game. The soundtrack he's referring to is Mozart's Requiem, performed by the St. Olaf Choir, conducted by Anton Armstrong '78. The choir, accompanied by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, provides the soaring vocals that seamlessly complement the gravity-defying athletics in the ad.

Since debuting Feb. 7, the commercial has generated a considerable amount of buzz, collecting thousands of hits on YouTube and prompting discussion on Classical Notes, Minnesota Public Radio's music weblog. Recently the Twin Cities-based Star Tribune also ran a story in which B.J. Johnson, manager of St. Olaf music organizations, discusses the commercial.

Although speculation abounds as to why and how Nike chose the St. Olaf Choir's rendition of Mozart's Requiem -- a piece recorded by countless ensembles -- Johnson considers the choice thematically appropriate.

"Someone at Nike obviously knew his or her classical music," he says.

The particular movement featured in the ad, the "Lacrimosa," was the final piece composed by Mozart before his death. The Requiem then was completed by Franz Sussmayr. Given the subject matter of the Nike ad -- in which a last-second dunk leaves a hometown crowd emotionally devastated -- the movement and the history around it seem all the more significant.

Provost and Dean of the College James May says the use of the "Lacrimosa" in the ad is a beautiful idea. "Whoever at Nike figured this out is quite clever, because the team in the commercial is dying when the last shot goes in," May says.

The text of the "Lacrimosa" is taken from the poem "Dies Irae," composed circa 1200 C.E. and usually attributed to Thomas of Celano, friend and biographer of St. Francis of Assisi. The poem was set to Gregorian chant and incorporated into masses a century later as a "sequence," a hymn sung during the church liturgical year. Typically the "Lacrimosa" was chanted on All Souls' Day and during funeral services.

May, who is professor of classics at St. Olaf, has taught the chant in his classes and sung it hundreds of times. He says the poem's penultimate lines, which, translated from Latin, read "Tearful that day, / on which will rise from ashes / guilty man for judgment," are among the most poignant of the entire movement.

"It's an extraordinary poetic statement of Judgment Day and the tension that exists between the idea of God as all just and God as all merciful," May says. "The poem is a perfect expression of that tension."

The St. Olaf Choir recorded Mozart's Requiem in 2004 at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul. The recording is available at St. Olaf Records.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or