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Is it possible to be simultaneously comforted and challenged? Jennaya Robison thinks so.

She's the new artistic director of the National Lutheran Choir, a Twin Cities-based group with a special skill for weaving richly textured harmonies that can make you feel as if wrapped in a warm, soft blanket.

But Robison wants to make sure that you stay grounded through the sometimes ethereal experience of a National Lutheran Choir concert. That's why, for her first season, she's programming music that explores the cycle of life and death, the difficulties of facing oppression and the quest for equality.

This Sunday, the choir will present a program called "New Journey" at Plymouth's St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church before taking it to the Carolinas for a three-concert tour the following weekend. Each audience will encounter beauty — and also some fodder for reflection about their own lives.

"We want to talk about how we, as people of faith, value the human experience on this planet, reconcile our feelings about immigration and refugees and people who go through a struggle not of their own choice," Robison said in a conversation earlier this month. "I want people to leave and think, 'God wants us to take care of everybody. So what am I doing?'"

Robison has taken the reins of an all-volunteer choir that's received arguably America's highest honor for a choir, Chorus America's Margaret Hillis Award. The group has had only two previous leaders: Founded in 1986 by Larry Fleming, it was helmed by David Cherwien from 2002 until last year.

Most recently a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory after several years at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Robison's journey to becoming a choral conductor started under her mother's piano, when she first heard the Overture to George Frideric Handel's oratorio "Messiah" at age 6.

"That's so beautiful, I have to learn how to do that," she recalls thinking. A concert performance of the oratorio affirmed her enthusiasm — until she fell asleep. But her choral path became clearer in high school.

"In choir, there was something magical, even at that age, that I understood," she said. "You have to bring skills to band or orchestra. But I could walk down the hallway, hear someone speak and say, 'You know what? You should come sing in choir.' And with a reasonable degree of efficiency, you can really teach anybody to do this."

Yet her own professional singing career brought her into contact with groups that changed her perception of the possible. Upon her 1997 graduation from Luther, she led a choir at Eagan High School and successfully auditioned for the Dale Warland Singers, which proved a formative experience.

"I didn't know that musicians like that existed," she recalled. "The sound was fantastic. That really shaped in my head what I want a choir to sound like."

And now her current position has her exploring new avenues of what a choir should sing about.

"She's expanding what 'sacred music' can be," soprano Katherine Castille said. "Why not break down barriers between what people have classified as 'sacred' and 'secular'?"

Tenor Logan Combs agrees, citing the combination at this weekend's concert of Emma Lazarus' poem from the base of the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free") with Melissa Dunphy's "#United We Dream."

"Her programming style challenges the listener to ask themselves, 'What is sacred?,'" Combs said. "While continuing to revere the established Lutheran staples like Heinrich Schütz, she challenges the audience — and the choir — to consider how one's faith is lived out through their actions."

National Lutheran Choir

When: 4 p.m. Sun.

Where: St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church, 17205 County Road 6, Plymouth.

Tickets: $35 (under 18 free, students pay as you are able), at

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at