Concordia’s 96th annual Christmas concert took place this last weekend, with higher attendance rates than the past several years. Despite recent Coronavirus outbreaks on campus, the Concordia orchestra and each Concordia choir was permitted to perform without masks, even with the interactive audience layout of the choir during several intervals of the performance. The ensembles will perform again at orchestra hall on Thursday.
This year’s theme for the concert was ‘Star of Bethlehem, Lead Us to Peace’, and both the musical and visual aspects of the performance reflected this theme. Most of the pieces performed contained biblical descriptions of the story of Jesus’ birth, and the theme was decided around the opening mass-performance score “Star of Bethlehem, Lead us to Peace”. The ensembles attempted to portray a sense of peace through music choice and performance aspects.
Aside from the musical aspects of the performance, Concordia staff and students created stunning visual portrayal of peace and of the biblical storyline. Each year, Concordia hires Paul Johnson to design a mural that spans the entire length of memorial auditorium, centered behind the performers. The mural is manipulated to match each piece of music throughout the performance by creative lighting changes.
For many years Dave Hetland designed these murals yearly for Concordia, until fourteen years ago when he passed away. Paul Johnson, who had worked for Hetland, was recommended to take the position. Johnson was originally skeptical of taking over Hetland’s position because he had wanted to continue teaching at Alexandria Technical college. After some prompting from students, Johnson decided to apply despite initial hesitation.
When Hetland had directed the creation of the yearly Christmas concert murals, they had been hand-painted designs, and took many months to create and assemble. The community was largely engaged with the project, and many Fargo-Moorhead residents volunteered to help create the murals each year.
Johnson, however, chose to create the murals digitally- both a stylistic choice and one that would allow him to continue working in Alexandria, while still taking the position for Concordia. This resulted in a large shift in production of the concert, since printing of the digital works took much less time to complete and required little to no community involvement. Many who had appreciated Hetland’s style and approach to the creation of the murals struggled to accept this change.
Johnson has now created fourteen murals for Concordia’s annual concerts, and the community has grown to love his vision. When asked about his experience working in the position, Johnson stated that “the honor of being able to design this [is] beyond words”. When asked to recall the most memorable experience being a part of the Concordia concerts, however, Paul Johnson doesn’t mention the murals’ importance, or the student and staff relationships, but rather an encouraging moment from his first year designing the mural.
Mary Hetland, Dave Hetland’s wife, approached Johnson after the end of the last performance of Johnson’s first year as the designer, to give him a card. When he opened it and read her note, he was overcome with emotion- she had written him a letter of encouragement, stating that Dave Hetland would have been proud of Johnson, and grateful that he had received the position.
Johnson claims that the note suggested he not get down on himself, because he’d surely receive both positive and negative feedback. Mary Hetland wrote to encourage Johnson to keep sharing his work with courage, and stated that “Everyone has different preferences and opinions, so it takes great courage to post mass work”. According to Johnson, he recalls Mary’s words of encouragement each year with fondness and a renewed thankfulness for the opportunity to be involved with Concordia, and its music program.
This year’s mural is meant to provide an emotional experience for the audience and to further enhance the peaceful demeanor of the music. Though Johnson’s murals are now generally met with gratitude, the change in tradition is often hard to cope with, especially in such a loyal returning community. Johnson’s account of encouragement from both Mary Hetland and Concordia students and staff seems to portray a peaceful, accepting, and generally positive atmosphere within the Concordia community, which was reflected beautifully in this past weekend’s performance.