St. Olaf Christmas Festival 2009 - Light of all Creation...Scatter the Darkness

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
November 27, 2009
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St. Paul, Minn. — In 1912, a Norwegian immigrant named F. Melius Christiansen created a special program. It was meant for the students and faculty at the school where he had only just been recruited, their families and some of the locals, and it was designed to give everyone a chance to stop for just one evening in a busy and stressful season and contemplate the wonder and awe of the Christmas story.

In the intervening nearly 100 years, this "Christmas program" for friends and family has grown into a mammoth festival of word and song with a successful formula that has been copied by college and university music programs everywhere.

Around 660 students play in the symphony orchestra or sing in one of five choirs creating a spiritual journey on the grandest scale - amidst a sea of Norwegian sweaters.

We live in a time of great unknown, but in the midst of it, this image of light still comes through.
- Anton Armstrong

And thanks to radio broadcasts, the Festival has been heard by millions throughout the world.

It all begins in darkness and anticipation. The first notes this year are from Steven Amundson and the orchestra. From Respighi's "The Pines of Rome," the scene is a moonlit night as it passes into the dawn. A nightingale sings and "scatters the darkness."

The singers then process into the auditorium, surrounding the audience like a giant hug and inviting the packed hall of about 3,000 to sing along. Though most of the evening, they'll be invited to sit back and simply bask in the singers' signature glowing tone - at one moment hushed and reverent - at another full of joy and awe.

New works this year include a setting of "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" by a current student of St. Olaf, Stanford E. Scriven, class of '11. Anton Armstrong told me it is a rare event for such a young student to have reached this level of musical maturity.

The Carol Collage is in the words of Viking Chorus conductor Christopher Aspaas a bit like "whack-a-mole" as each conductor pops up to take his role in the round-robin like song set. Cantorei conductor John Ferguson depended not on a religious carol to hold the collage together this time around - but rather a song made popular by Bing Crosby: "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

Another first is the Finale from Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2 "Lobegesang" - a joyous setting of a song of praise from the Psalms. The massed choirs - or "mob scene" as it's been described by one conductor - always sing memorized and spot-on, creating a gigantic wash of sound.

This year marked the passing of the great musician, composer and organist Paul Manz. St. Olaf College gives thanks for his life presenting his classic anthem "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come."

The festival closes - as it has for over nine decades - with F. Melius Christiansen's arrangement of the Silesian Folk Tune "Beautiful Savior." And with that simple, touching melody the festival ends - the audience can finally applaud - and the Christmas season officially begins.

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Listen to a repeat broadcast on Classical MPR on Sunday, December 20 at 6:00 or stream from your computer by clicking on the audio to the right.

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