St. Olaf festival was authentically ChristmasPublished 11:55am Monday, December 12, 2011
I learned of the St. Olaf College choir more than 60 years ago while touring the Pacific northwest with my own college choir and we kept crossing paths with them. Many who came to hear us had just heard them or would in a few days. We felt them to be healthy challengers for quality choral music. We were also singing several arrangements by St. Olaf’s F. Melius Christiansen.
I hadn’t been in Minnesota long before many (mostly Lutherans) said, “You gotta go to the St. Olaf Christmas Festival.” I tried, but I could never get tickets. I was told the trick for non-Oles is to get a request in the mail on Oct. 1. It still didn’t work. So, we married off a son to an Ole (“Um yah yah”). This year is the third she has obtained tickets for us, and we went to this year’s first performance. This is, in fact, the 100th annual event.
We were well advised to arrive early to get a good parking spot. So we were on campus nine minutes prior to the performance. We were pleased to find a place to sit down in the lobby and further pleased they let us in an hour before it began. All the more pleased, were we, to find Skoglund Center now has backs to the bleacher seats. Student ushers were everywhere needed, and I find these kids a delight.
The field house was packed, and 600 student musicians filled the huge stage area. In addition to the St. Olaf Choir and the full orchestra, there are the handbell choir, the Cantorei, the chapel choir, the Manitou Singers, and the Viking Chorus.
As every year, it was an excellent performance. The internal logistics and coordination are amazing. Throughout, the five conductors alternated directing the orchestra and five choirs. On at least one number, all five directed from five spots on the platform. It went for exactly two hours, and there wasn’t a wasted moment.
What I most appreciate is the performance was straightforwardly and authentically Christmas. Not “happy holidays” or “winter wonderland”—Christmas unselfconsciously and without apology: Jesus was born of a virgin as the Son of God who came to be our Savior. The gospel was read and its message sung. Not a religious ceremony, it was a spiritual experience. No one does this better than the Lutherans.
A special treat for us was the viola solo with a choir singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It was played by our friend Charles Gray, professor of music. His father was my college classmate, and his mother was our children’s first music teacher.
I was amused by “Jeg er sa Glad” sung in Norwegian—by the audience. What amuses me is not this but that everyone else seemed to know how to pronounce the words. (The choirs, however, were allowed on just this number to whip out programs and read. Apparently the younger generation isn’t any more familiar than we.)
If the St. Olaf Choir would be known for but one number, it would be Christiansen’s sensitive arrangement of the Silesian folk tune as the setting for “Beautiful Savior.” This is the choir, and it always warms my heart at the same time it sends chills up my spine. First sung in 1924, it has concluded the performance since the 1930s. The five choirs surrounded the auditorium as they sang for us. After this, you just want to walk out into the silent night.
Austin is proportionately well represented. In the orchestra, Catherine Monson plays violin and Dayna Jondal plays the viola while Kelsey Fleming is the harpist. David Koser gives his rich baritone to the Viking Chorus.
You would please me if my comments encouraged you to seek tickets for next year. If you manage to obtain them, you will be pleased with what you hear. Some will have heard it this year on Dec. 4 by simulcast in 46 states.
You need not wait a year. This year’s performance will be telecast on PBS and can be viewed at five times in our viewing area: TPT (channel 2) on Dec. 20 at 8 p.m., 23 at 9 p.m., 25 at 8 a.m.; on Iowa (channel 11) on Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. and 25 at 2 p.m.
I say, then, forthrightly and unapologetically: Merry Christmas.