Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas
On the whiteboard in our kitchen, my roommates and I have a countdown to the 30th annual St. Thomas Christmas Concert on Sunday, which will be my fourth and final time performing there. As it grows closer, I feel overwhelmed with excitement while still well aware that it will be a bittersweet day. When I started at the University of St. Thomas, I longed for a community that felt like a close-knit family. I found this when I joined the Liturgical Choir, though I didn’t realize it until I sang in Orchestra Hall for the first time. The girl I stood by had the voice of an angel, which calmed my anxious adrenaline that abruptly aroused. The overwhelming joy in each note made me realize how blessed I am to sing here with my fellow musicians, standing shoulder to shoulder on the grandiose stage so all of us—nearly 400—can fit.
The St. Thomas Christmas Concert moved from its on-campus chapel to Orchestra Hall in 2007 to accommodate a larger audience. Orchestra Hall holds nearly 2,000 people, and the concert sells out for each performance annually. Angela Broeker, director of choral activities for nearly 20 years, reflects on performing there: “We love that Orchestra Hall provides enough seating that we can welcome community members as well as people associated with the University of St. Thomas. The concert allows the community to get to know our music department a little better.” The concert is televised nationally every other year, meaning it will be filmed again this year—offering us singers the opportunity to perform for long-distant family and friends.
Filming also adds a few steps to the preparation process: from planning hair and makeup to determining where soloists should stand. “Every singer has to be 100 percent invested in order to carry this off, keeping in mind that you might have a camera in your face and, a few weeks later, Aunt Jane and Uncle Steve are going to see it broadcast on the other side of the country,” says Samuel Fouts, the first-year Liturgical Choir director who recently completed his Masters in choral studies at the University of Cambridge in England before returning to his home state, Minnesota. TV viewers, he adds, “know about the old ‘watermelon trick'”—referring to the choir joke that if you can’t remember the words, simply mouth “watermelon” over and over again.
Preparation for the Christmas Concert—from learning notes to memorizing full pieces—begins right when the school year does, and even earlier for the directors. “I was hired in June, and Christmas concerts were actually the first thing on my to-do list,” Fouts says. “We had to finalize our repertoire selections by August 1, and I was going to be back in England for a chunk of the summer, so I just started planning right away.” Fortunately, Fouts says that he loves selecting repertoire. This year, he chose pieces according to the theme “So Bright the Star.” Every year has a new concert theme tied in to Advent (the first season of the Christian church year) and Christ’s birth. This year’s theme refers to the star of Bethlehem that guided the shepherds to the manger where, in the biblical story, Christ was born. “I love Christmas and Advent,” Fouts says, “so it just kind of happened. I started imagining pieces I’d like to do around that theme and how they’d fit together.”
The concert will begin with instrumentalists playing on stage as five choirs process in, singing “So Bright the Star,” which the University of St. Thomas commissioned from Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. “It is very exciting to step out on stage and see hundreds of students start up the aisles with their candles,” Broeker says. “It is as if the students are carrying the warmth of Christmas into the hall.” I have to agree. Walking toward the stage, I’m reminded that this concert is more than a performance; it’s a St. Thomas tradition. Engaging the audience in participatory singing makes it community outreach, too. Fouts reminds our choir frequently that our purpose is not simply to sing perfected music, but to sing with a perfected connection to it as well as the audience. Someone, after all, may need to hear our music’s message.
Since Fouts and two-thirds of the singers are new to Liturgical Choir, Sunday will be a first experience for all of them. “I’ve sung at Orchestra Hall many times, going all the way back to high school,” Fouts reflects. “I have never been on the other side of the podium, though, so I’m going to have to do a lot of work to keep myself as serene as I need to be for others.”
In just a few days, I will stand on the stage, along with nearly 400 other St. Thomas musicians, feeling a sense of honor and belonging. I know I will feel struck by that same adrenaline of gratitude I first felt four years ago when singing on Orchestra Hall’s ornate stage. Hopefully, Fouts will be able channel that same adrenaline into the sense of serenity we all could use this time of year.
“So Bright the Star”
4 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis