An ethereal sound floats from the choir loft weekly at the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul. The sound has an interesting Edina connection. Dr. Robert Peterson—choir director at Edina High School from 1976 to 1998—directs the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale accompanied by the Minnesota Orchestra at 10 a.m. Sunday mornings under the Zweibelturm (onion tower) at the historic Frogtown neighborhood church. His position is just the latest on a long list of accomplishments as one of the individuals who developed the Edina High School choir programs. Peterson says of his latest venture, “I am doing the thing I was meant to do and have been doing it for 50 years.”
Growing up in Cambridge, Minn., a young Peterson developed a love of fishing and the outdoors. But it was on the set of the nationally televised Kraft Music Hour in 1963, at the age of 18, that he discovered a hankering for performance. He got a chance to sing with Perry Como and it was the beginning of a career that would take Peterson all over the globe and land him a 20-plus-year career with EHS.
Peterson sang in a downtown Minneapolis supper club, Schiek’s Café, from 1963 to 1968 while an undergrad at the University of Minnesota. He earned a master’s degree in music by age 23; he went on to Tokyo’s Johnson Air Force Base to work at a school teaching music to the children of the U.S. military personnel stationed there. It was there that Peterson says, “I discovered what I was meant to be.”
Peterson invited his fiancée, Pat, to join him in Japan, where they married. She’s been by his side ever since. When his stint in Japan was up in 1972, the pair traveled to other military bases where Peterson taught and conducted choirs of students—first in Brussels and then in Munich.
In 1976, the couple decided it was time to return home to Minnesota. “I decided I would return to graduate school,” says Peterson, “but exactly one day after I had made that decision, Edina came calling.” Remarkably, Edina High School hired Peterson as choir director without an interview, based on the input of another EHS teacher who’d heard he was coming home.
At the time, the strength of the EHS music department was the band program. The choir was small by comparison. But by the end of his first year, there were 300 students involved in choir, rivaling the participation in band. Thanks to Peterson’s work, EHS choirs have grown into the powerhouse they are today, launching careers and entertaining the community with stellar performances throughout year. Peterson was also responsible for starting the Edina Men’s Chorus, for bringing quality musicals to the EHS stage and for taking the concert choir on tours all over the world to perform in breathtaking locations.
After Peterson retired from EHS in 1998, he conducted the Macalester College choir for 10 years. He continues to keep in touch with many students from his days at EHS, sharing fond memories on social media and attending many of the concerts put on each year. Today, he is simply delighted to have the privilege of conducting at St. Agnes and feels that each musical opportunity has been more surprising than the last. His time at EHS was a pleasure. He left the high school with an accomplished choir program that continues to grow and flourish. Peterson still shakes his head in the wonder at all of the places music has taken him. He says of his career, “It has been glorious, and a real privilege.”
Find out more about musical performances at the Church of St. Agnes at the website here.