Since its founding in 1912 as a "worship service in song for the college community," the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival has become an international holiday institution with a radio and television audience of millions.
This years Christmas Festival, "Awaken Our Souls, O God of Hope," runs through Sunday with over 16,000 people expected to attend. Music Professor and St. Olaf Choir Director Anton Armstrong, artistic director of the annual holiday program, says that this years Festival "has a powerful message at a time when our very beings have to be awakened, both as children of God, and in our role in serving others."
The Christmas Festival, which is presented as a worship service in Skoglund Auditorium, features the talents of over 500 singers and instrumentalists. The events vocal ensembles include the St. Olaf Choir, conducted by Armstrong, Cantorei, conducted by Music Professor John Ferguson, the Manitou Singers, conducted by Music Instructor Sigrid Johnson, and the Viking Chorus and Chapel Choir, both conducted by Music Professor Robert Scholz. The 92-member St. Olaf Orchestra, conducted by Music Professor Steven Amundson, is the programs featured instrumental group.
Planning for this years Christmas Festival began in January 2003, when the programs artistic committee met to discuss a theme. "We thought about where were at in the world, and what people might be feeling," said Armstrong. Influenced in part by continuing repercussions of the events of Sept. 2001, the committee decided on the theme "Awaken Our Souls, O God of Hope."
"Theres a lot of music woven throughout the program that brings out the theme," said Armstrong, pointing to the hymns "Wake, Awake," and "Justice, O God" as examples.
This years program includes an array of hymns, carols, and other choral and orchestral works, many of them composed or arranged by current and past St. Olaf faculty members. One noteworthy piece on the program is the "Sanctus" by contemporary composer Dominic Argento, who was awarded an honorary degree by the college in October.
In addition to programming newer works, Armstrong said, "We also wanted to bring back some of the pieces that have shaped the Christmas Festival." He noted that some pieces, including the traditional closing tune, F. Melius Christiansens arrangement of "Beautiful Savior," served both purposes, since that hymn "is really about the final proclamation of the Lord of hope."
Armstrong was quick to point out that the Christmas Festival "isnt a music department event; its a college event." The annual holiday program requires year-round faculty planning, administrative support, and coordination of St. Olafs many programs and services. For example, Bon Appetit, St. Olafs food service, served about 750 pounds of lutefisk and 850 pounds of meatballs during last years Christmas Festival.
In the end, though, Armstrong said, its the dedication of student musicians that allows St. Olafs signature event to occur each year. "What really makes it work is the talented students who commit themselves to the words and the powerful music," he said. For those students, Christmas Festival "is a sacrifice, but its a sacrifice worth making, because of the message it brings to so many people."
This years Christmas Festival will be broadcast live on WCAL 89.3 this Sunday at 3:30 p.m., and a nationally distributed version will air on public radio and television stations throughout the holiday season.