Conductor History

Learn more about the artistic leaders of the Gustavus Choir and their impact on the ensemble.

2019 to Present

Dr. Brandon Dean serves as the Jon and Anita Thomsen Young Distinguished Endowed Chair in Music and is the seventh conductor of the Gustavus Choir. In addition to his conducting duties, he also teaches beginning and advanced conducting, coordinates the choral music education program, and serves as music director for Christmas in Christ Chapel. Dr. Dean received the 2014 Swenson-Bunn Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence. Prior to his appointment at Gustavus in 2011, Dr. Dean completed the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Excerpts below from The Gustavus Choir: A 75 Year Commitment to Excellence (2007) by David Holdhusen. For additional information on the history of the Gustavus Choir, you can purchase a copy of the book here.


The Lutheran Choral School, long recognized for its contributions to American choral music, is rooted in the work of F. Melius Christiansen (1871-1955) and two of his sons, Olaf (1901-84) and Paul (1914-97). F. Melius Christiansen founded the St. Olaf Choir in the early twentieth century and led the ensemble until 1941, when Olaf became the conductor. Paul Christiansen carried his family's passion for unaccompanied sacred choral music to Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.), where he conducted the Concordia Choir for nearly five decades. The Christiansen family's musical ideas, teaching, and unwavering quest for musical excellence in choral music inspired and informed generations of music educators and music programs at Lutheran private colleges--including the music program at Gustavus Adolphus College.

Gustavus Adolphus College has had a choir on its campus since it was originally founded in 1862. In its earliest days singing was listed alongside writing, arithmetic, Swedish, Christianity, and others, as subjects to be taught. These initial vocal music classes focused primarily on the foundations of singing. In addition, students practiced hymns, anthems, and choruses as a part of their vocal training. The college sought to prepare its students to become music teachers and organists in order to take the musical traditions into area congregations. 

1932 to 1945

Although formal choirs were organized on campus as early as the 1880s, it was not until 1932 that G. Adolph Nelson founded the ensemble now known as the Gustavus Choir. Nelson conducted the ensemble from 1932–1945 and elevated the choral program from one of mediocrity to a level of excellence on par with the other great a cappella choirs of the time period. He introduced Gustavus to the concept of touring with the mixed choir and brought the a cappella style of singing from the college to the Eastern United States. 


The second conductor of the choir was Wilber Swanson (1945–1950) who trained under F. Melius Christiansen at St. Olaf College. Swanson was responsible for reorganizing the choir after it had fallen dormant during World War II. He also brought back the choir’s annual concert tour and began an annual Christmas concert tradition. Swanson was followed by Eugene Casselman (1950–1954) who received critical acclaim for his leadership of the ensemble and became a rising star in the choral field. During his brief time as conductor that the choir’s reputation really began to soar.


Philip Knautz, a Gustavus graduate, led the ensemble in more than 500 concerts over a twenty-six year tenure (1954–1980). Under his leadership, the choir traveled to forty of the fifty U.S. states, several Canadian provinces, and took its first overseas international tour. He witnessed the construction of Christ Chapel and new the fine arts facilities on campus and worked to utilize them to their fullest. He was part of the team that gave birth to Christmas in Christ Chapel and became part of the legacy of this traditional holiday event. Through his commitment to musical excellence, the Gustavus Choir developed a reputation as a world-class performing ensemble that was rooted in the traditions of the Lutheran choral heritage. In his forty years of affiliation with Gustavus, as a student and faculty member, Philip Knautz came to truly embody the spirit of this institution.


Karle Erickson conducted the choir from 1980–1994 and drew on the ideals F. Melius Christiansen and the Lutheran choral tradition by identifying four concepts that he believed would advance the Gustavus Choir to the next level of excellence. These concepts included the programming of quality concert literature, establishing energy and intensity in the rehearsal that would translate to artistic performance, extensive touring throughout the United States and internationally, and building a sense of tradition within the choir. Erickson believed that the choral program he inherited at Gustavus included a long history of performance excellence but lacked a heritage of tradition passed from one class to the next. In 1981, he first programmed Praise to the Lord by F. Melius Christiansen for the annual concert tour and it has remained the signature selection for the choir ever since.


Gregory Aune served as the sixth conductor of the Gustavus Choir from 1995–2019. During his time, Greg further enhanced the reputation and level of excellence of the choir. He embraced the Lutheran heritage of the choir while transforming the traditions to include new ideas and expanded repertoire. His methods varied greatly from those of Erickson and Knautz. He brought a style of leadership that was more relaxed and less commanding. Though his methods were more thoughtful and subtle, the results produced more emotive singing from the choir. During his time as conductor, the Gustavus Choir presented first-rate concert tours, including international travel every four years. He introduced new styles of music by contemporary composers to the ensemble and gave many world premieres of newly commissioned pieces. He brought an attitude of collegial collaboration to the musical learning and worked to provide his students with learning experiences that taught life lessons.