On Dec. 1 through 4, all five departmental choirs and the St. Olaf Orchestra collaborated in their annual “Christmas Festival,” better known as “Christmas Fest,” performing a two hour program of Christmas hymns centered around the theme “Light Dawns, Hope Blooms.”
“I think especially with what’s going on the world right now, it’s really nice to have this big thing that so many people are a part of, with so many students coming together, making a show that is so positive,” Manitou Singers member Melanie Nevins ’20 said.
The road to the Christmas Festival is a long one. Musicians partake in months of rehearsals and must learn a collective 26 pieces, then return to campus early from Thanksgiving break in order to jump into final rehearsals. The stress, compounded by the workload of the end of the academic semester, can cause some students to get sick or joke about needing to live on tea, honey and lemon water to avoid illness.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it,” Nevins said.
One feature that made this year’s performance distinctive was the new online streaming option. Audiences had the option of purchasing a live stream or video download of the final performance in addition to buying tickets and attending in person.
According to the St. Olaf blog, the streaming was coordinated with the help of “10 HD cameras throughout the performance space, each individually controlled from new, high-tech video studios in Skifter Hall, an Emmy Award-winning director/producer team and 17 skilled broadcast technicians, including 11 current St. Olaf students and three alumni.”
One of the cameras was positioned on a robotic black arm that swiveled above and around musicians to attain pre-planned shots for the stream and video compilation. However, this arm at times distracted and partially obstructed the views of those seated in section five, the section farthest to the right and nearest to the St. Olaf Orchestra.
Interestingly, while the festival typically sells out two weeks before opening night, this was not the case this year – possibly due to the presence of the streaming function.
This year’s theme “Light Dawns, Hope Blooms” was drawn from one of the five premiere performances of the night: Mack Wilberg’s “Light Dawns on a Weary World.” The song details hope for a better future world, paraphrasing Isaiah 55:12. The inside of the front cover of the program states “... Out of darkness, light dawns. The first rays of dawn are enough to stir our soul ... We watch as the light overtakes the darkness ... With the dawning of light, hope blooms ... There is hope in the dawn, for the light of the day nourishes all living things ... With this light, in Christ, we see anew ... we see the world. And it is good. We see our neighbor. And we are filled with love ... we live in this hope.”
This year’s theme in some ways acts as a sequel to last year’s theme, “And on Earth, Peace.” With core hymns such as “It is Well,” 2015’s Christmas Festival, which occured not long after the Paris and Beirut attacks, reassured its listeners that one day eternal peace would come and peace could be found in the meantime. So if last year was a moment of healing and resilience in a hurting world, deriving hope from stars seen in the blue twilight before sunrise, then this year’s festival was the moment of daybreak – when dawn finally comes, and we are boldly encouraged to move forth in action and faith, knowing that such hopes will be materialized and protected, despite what obstacles may come. Dipping into the introspective, only to come bursting out in joy, confidence and courage, the 26 songs created an empowering emotional journey for listeners.
The setlist proved nostalgic for the members of the senior class of 2017, who recognized John Ferguson’s arrangement of “Prepare the Royal Highway” and Carolyn Jennings’ “Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain” as the opening two vocal pieces of their first Christmas Festival performance in 2013. According to Minnesota Public Radio, this arrangement of “Prepare the Royal Highway” held its world premiere during the 2013 Christmas Festival. Seniors who sang in Manitou Singers their freshmen year first sang “Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain” under Sigrid Johnson, in her penultimate Christmas Festival.
“It’s weird, especially because ‘Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain’ was the piece that opened Christmas Fest to me, and now closes Christmas Fest. And by having it directed by two different conductors, Sigrid Johnson my first year and Dr. Therese Hibbard – yes, they both bring different feelings and emotions into it but it’s just one song, the text,” St. Olaf Choir member Vanessa Lopez ’17 said. “Just having it, going through it, just makes me reminisce on the memories of where I’ve been, where I’ve gone, and life after this.”
Aside from the aforementioned Wilberg piece, four more pieces premiered for the first time in this Christmas Festival: John Ferguson’s arrangement of “The Hills Are Bare At Bethlehem,” “In My Arms” by Philip Biedenbender ’16, “His Light in Us” by Kim André Arnesen and André J. Thomas’ arrangement of “Shout for Joy!”
Per tradition, the program closed with “Beautiful Savior.” Amidst thunderous applause and cheering, the four choral conductors and the orchestra conductor took the stage together and bowed, only to have to return due to the insistent clapping by the audience. After their second set of bows and acknowledgement of the orchestra and choir members, the conductors left the stage and folded into a group hug.
For some seniors, the culmination of up to four years of hard work and fond memories is a strange one to confront. Christmas Festival will be performed once more in March 2017 for the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), so it is not entirely over.
“[It’s an] overwhelming wave of emotions ... It’s bittersweet. It’s a lot of work, but the thing is, even though the journey was hard to get there, it’s just that journey ... it’s so savored and I cherish every moment of it. Of the pieces, of the messages it brings and how it connects together as a whole for this particular topic,” Lopez said.
The Christmas Festival audio tracks and video are now available for purchase on the St. Olaf website.