Sverre Valen, world famous choir director, is regarded as the "Grand Old Man" of Norwegian choral music. A resident of Sandefjord, he founded and directed four choirs in that city, all of which have won numerous national and international awards and received excellent reviews wherever they have traveled.
Sverre was born in Levanger, Norway, the son of Gudren (Guri) Fossheim and Tor Sveinungsen Valen, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Because of his father's work, the family moved frequently. Sverre began music study at age eleven, when the family purchased a piano. He took lessons on trumpet, cello, and violin, studied piano under Inge Rolf Ringnes, and took voice lessons for four years with singer Marie Irgens, who had been a personal friend of Edvard Grieg.
Even though Valen had studied music extensively during his childhood and teenage years, he did not decide to pursue music as a profession until he was twenty, when he entered the conservatory. Seven years later, in 1952, he married Mary Johannessen, a music educator. Four years later they settled in Sandefjord, a city 75 miles south of Oslo, where they still reside.
On their arrival, they started the Sandefjord Girls' Choir with Sverre serving as director and Mary giving voice lessons to its members. Three years later he debuted as conductor of the choir at Aula University in Oslo. During his 41 years in leading the choir it would achieve international acclaim, winning prizes in prestigious competitions at home and elsewhere in Europe and traveling extensively in Europe and America, where they sang in such distinguished venues as St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice and St. Peter's in Rome.
The choir's first international success was in 1969, when it won the BBC world contest, Let the People Sing, an event that included choirs from 22 nations. It would later win in other European competitions, including the Weltjugenfest für Musik in Vienna, in 1979 and 1990.
In 1970 the choir gave three concerts at the Bergen International Festival, all of which received outstanding reviews. They would go on to win first prize numerous times in the annual youth choir competitions sponsored by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and to perform frequently with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1976 they participated in the U.S. bicentennial by touring for 21 days in that country. Hans-Jorgen Holman, a native Norwegian and professor at Andrews University in Michigan, along with his wife, Rae, planned and oversaw the tour, which was sponsored by then Crown Princess, later Queen Sonja, of Norway.
Three busloads of singers performed in the "Norwegian Salute to the Bicentennial" series of concerts, starting in Chicago and continuing throughout the Eastern U.S. They were guests at the Norwegian Embassy and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where the Crown Princess was present. The tour concluded with a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
By the time Valen stepped down as director of the Sandefjord Girls' Choir, he had created what was regarded as a national treasure. A reviewer at the New York Times wrote about the choir at the time of their 1976 tour:
The most immediately striking aspect of their singing is the sheer beauty and transparency of the choral sound together with its easy flexibility in achieving the subtlest gradations of color and dynamics. Every piece was handled with smart technical precision and given a sensible, straightforward musical profile.
Valen also taught music and formed and conducted other elite choirs. He directed Bel Canto, a women's choir, from 1961 to 1971; the Valen Choir for mixed voices from 1964 to 1995, which won the Norwegian Grammy award in 1974 for best professional recording of the year in serious music; and the Valens Soloist Ensemble, composed of outstanding members from the Sandefjord Girls' Choir, from 1985 to 2000. The VSE won second prize in the Let the People Sing competition in 1988 and 1989. Beginning in 1984, Valen formed an Adventist choir, which is the only choir he now conducts.
The city of Sandefjord awarded its Cultural Prize to Valen for his work in 1972 and Vestfold County did the same in 1975. He was decorated with the St. Olaf Medal in 1981 and in 1992 was awarded first class knighthood in the Order of St. Olaf. He was made an honorary member of the Association of Norwegian Choir Conductors in 1995 and was appointed in 2000 to the Century Sandefjord House of Culture. The jury for the latter commented on that occasion,
Through 43 years as conductor [and] song and music teacher here in town, few have - and none in the cultural sector - accomplished as much as Sverre Valen, all the time with the ultimate mark of quality for all performances. Sandefjord Jentekor [Sandefjord Girl's Choir] has for years been an institution, and his other choir[s] have received widespread recognition. Sverre Valen has been described as "a phenomenon in Norwegian music." Sverre Valen has set Sandefjord on [the] culture map like no other [person]. His name looms not only locally but nationally and internationally.
In December 2004 at the All Can Sing organization's annual Christmas concert, both he and his wife were jointly awarded a prize for their work in teaching children and young people to sing. During their careers they had taught over 8,000 children, from kindergarten age to early adulthood.
Sources: Sandefjord Girl's Choir Souvenir Program, 1976 tour during the U.S. Bicentennial, 6,7,10; Numerous Online Sites.