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ISSUE 121 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/7/2007

Christmas Festival enchants

By Trent Chafee
Contributing Writer

Friday, December 7, 2007

When F. Melius Christiansen, founder of the St. Olaf music department, directed the first St. Olaf Christmas Festival in 1912, his goal was not only to entertain, but also to transform the audience. Music was a way to serve others.

Now in its 96th year, amidst distractions of four nights of Twin Cities Public Television cameras and the responsibility of sharing a live Sunday concert with 197 extra audiences, all involved in Christmas Fest can say they beautifully maintained the festival's tradition as an outgrowth of Christian conviction and an expression of the college's rich musical heritage. This year opened a new Christmas Fest chapter while maintaining its roots. Audience members and musicians left Skoglund Center Arena with a deeper understanding of peace, love and hope.

The St. Olaf Choir, St. Olaf Orchestra, St. Olaf Cantorei, Chapel Choir, Manitou Singers and Viking Chorus displayed their artistry as individual groups and blended effortlessly as a massed ensemble. Given only a week to rehearse as a whole, the choral groups and orchestra molded into a cohesive unit with the guidance of conductors Steven Amundson, Anton Armstrong, Christopher Aspaas, John Ferguson and Sigrid Johnson,

This year's theme, "Where Peace and Love and Hope Abide," pervaded the hymns, carols, choral works and orchestral selections of the festival. Donald Fraser's "This Christmastide," conducted by Armstrong and performed by the entire massed ensemble, was the talk of the Skoglund lobby. The flowing orchestra set the piece's slow, expressive holiday mood, while softly entering sopranos and altos described the wonder of "green and silver, red and gold, and a story born of old."

Tenors and basses swelled the momentum, layering harmonies, which led to the climatic sixth verse with the massed choir loudly proclaiming, "Trumpets sound and voices raise/ In an endless stream of praise," and concluding with a soft, passionate singing of the festival theme, "Peace and love and hope abide/ This Christmastide."

Pastors Bruce Benson and Jennifer Anderson Koenig '87 recited a poignant Gospel reading of Luke 2: 1-20, telling the story of angels appearing to a group of shepherds in the fields upon the birth of Jesus. The Gospel was divided by a rousing massed ensemble excerpt from Gerald Finzi's "In Terra Pax," proving to be the evening's most dynamic moment.

Catering to a national audience, several pieces incorporated a varied blend of instruments and languages. Cantorei's "In Thee is Gladness" featured strong, tuned whistling and several clever organ solos. St. Olaf Orchestra and Handbell Choir collaborated for "Glories Ring," a vivacious piece with the melody of "Ding Dong Merrily on High" that left Amundson, the piece's composer and conductor, with a spirited smile all four nights. Ferguson's arrangement for mass choir, "Carols for the Choirs," included the Spanish carol "Toda La Tierra" (All Earth is Hopeful) from Chapel Choir, Norwegian carol "Jeg er så glad" (I Am So Glad) from Manitou Singers, and the German carol "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!" (Silent Night, Holy Night) by Viking Chorus.

Christiansen's arrangement of "Beautiful Savior," the traditional send-off to Christmas Festival, continues to leave the audience in an emotional trance. As the lights went out each night, the audience sat still, contemplating their experience in the candlelight. Entertainment became reflection, followed by a standing ovation. Christiansen would have been proud.

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