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Christmas concert mixes new details with traditional pieces

After 83 years, Concordia Christmas Concerts may seem like a predictable and unvarying tradition and a permanent fixture of the holidays in Minnesota. This year, however, audiences may notice a couple changes: a new director for one of the choirs, a new artist for the Christmas Concert mural, and camera crews taping several performances for national syndication.

Once every four to five years, the concert is filmed for public broadcasting stations. This year’s concert will be filmed and edited by Twin Cities Public Television and distributed to Public Broadcasting Service stations around the country. While PBS outlets are able to choose whether or not they broadcast the concert, it remains a popular addition to public programming during the holidays in much of the country. According to Gordon Moe, manager of choral ensembles at Concordia, it is usually distributed over 75 percent of the major PBS markets.
“What this involves is much more pre-planning,” Moe said.

He added that the music department began planning this year’s concert “as soon as last year’s was over.”

The concert this year had to be planned to have the look and feel of any other Christmas concert, but to also be conducive to filming. This means that the arrangement of the audience will be adjusted for placement of cameras, musicians and their instruments. Even the placements of music stands will be considered for camera angles, and the number of lighting instruments used by Campus Lights to illuminate the concert will be doubled.

“It has to be very television-worthy,” Moe said.

For the choirs, television-worthy means they have to not only sound their best, they have to look their best.

“Every rehearsal, Dr. Clausen’s like ‘Better start using the Clearasil!’” said Jennifer Bevington, a sophomore who sings in the Concordia Choir.

René Clausen, director of the Concordia Choir and the main artistic voice of the concert, also jokes that he tells his performers to be conscious of the fact that they will be filmed in high definition.

“I tell them to make sure the guys shave at five at night,” he said.

However, Clausen does believe that filming may add an extra level of anxiety for the performers.

“Everyone has to be aware that the camera may be on them,” he said. “I think it heightens your sensitivity a bit.”

In spite of the extra effort that the performers have to put into the concert this year, many students feel that the filming will promote a higher level of excellence.

“It’s a good stress that motivates us to achieve even higher potential,” said sophomore Brennan Michaels, who is in the Chapel Choir.

Filming this year’s concert also requires that the music be of interest to average American audiences. As a result, much of the complex and often obscure choral music from past concerts will be replaced this year with many more familiar hymns and carols, most of are arranged by Clausen.

“It’s much more audience-centered,” said Michael Smith, director of freshmen choirs Cantabile and Mannerchor and Chapel Choir.

“It’s not so esoteric,” he said.

Smith believes that this will be an advantage for the students performing in the concert as well. These days, he said, many students do not grow up with the music that will be featured in this year’s concerts because of the rise of contemporary praise songs used in churches.

“Our students do not know so many of the great hymns of the church,” Smith said. “Particularly in these churches with worship bands.”

One dress rehearsal and the first three Moorhead performances will be taped, and from these recordings the best 54 minutes of material will be edited for distribution to PBS.

“It adds a little extra pressure, I would say,” said Nicki Toliver, director of Bel Canto, one of the Concordia women’s choirs.

Toliver herself is a new addition to the Concordia Christmas Concert. She joined the music faculty after the planning process had already begun for this year’s concert. However, having her first Concordia Christmas Concert as a director televised does add stress, she said. Still, she thinks the challenge will be beneficial.

“[It adds] an extra drive to bring success, not just for my choir but for the mission of the concerts as a whole,” she said.

Toliver is not the only one whose vision is new in concert. This year, artist Paul Johnson will create the famous mural, which the concert traditionally incorporates as part of the setting. For years, this mural was designed by the late liturgical artist, David Hetland, and painted by community members. When Hetland passed away in 2006, Concordia had to find other ways of filling the gap he left in the Christmas Concert tradition.

Moe is optimistic about having Johnson as the artist for the concert.

“Art has always been a central component of the concerts,” Moe said.

He said that Johnson, who worked with Hetland himself, will carry on this tradition well.

Johnson, who lives in Pelican Rapids, Minn., will be bringing in a new medium for the murals: digital printing.

According to Smith, this new medium will actually have an un-looked for benefit for the choirs. In the past, the murals were made of muslin, which absorbed the sound. With hard wood behind the fabric, the sound of the choirs and orchestra will bounce back to the audience.

“It will be like having a regular choral shell,” Smith said.

Johnson himself maintains that music is the main focus of the concert.

“People will have goose bumps from the music alone,” Johnson said in an interview for the Christmas Concert Web site. “It literally will touch the inner soul of the people present. I just want to complement the music in every way so when people feel the music, the art becomes part of that experience.”

With all this to consider, the concert still has to have the look and feel of any other Christmas concert.

Clausen stresses that the concert still needs to meet the expectations for audiences who come to the concerts every year. This year’s theme, “Journey to Bethlehem,” is one that he hopes the audience can connect with.

“It ends up being our collective journey,” he said. “The concert hopefully brings us to the manger.”

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