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St. Olaf Christmas Festival

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Listen on December 19 at 8pm and December 25, 2015 at 10am on WMHT-FM

Northfield, Minnesota welcomes over 600 student musicians for this year's annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival, a 100-year-old tradition deeply cherished in this part of the country, as well as listened to raptly by millions throughout the world.

It was over 100 years ago this December when a Norwegian immigrant named F. Melius Christiansen had the idea to bring together students, faculty and their families for an evening of singing and contemplation. Even back then, shopping, travel plans, parties and college finals made this time of year extremely hectic — and the real meaning of Christmas just got buried among long to-do lists.

As the years passed — this Christmas program really caught on — in a huge way — it's expanded into a festival of word and music that includes five choirs, a symphony orchestra, five conductors, two pastors and the 4,000 audience members who are invited to sing along — and St. Olaf's festival is one copied by college music programs all over the country.

Anton Armstrong is the Artistic Director of the festival and tells me this is much more than a concert — it's a transformative journey. "It's not entertainment, in the sense of Radio City Music Hall. It's not entertainment in some of the grand spectacles that some of the television specials have turned into over Christmas. But what it does is takes very heartfelt words and beautifully crafted scores and asks each of us to open all of who we are — body, mind, spirit and voice — so that we can take in this message anew."

That message is simple — "The World Renewed with Love Divine." It's the gift of a child born simply, and humbly, for us and the words and music we'll hear will take us straight into the heart of that message, its meaning penetrating deeply into our souls.

Five choirs perform in the Christmas Festival — including the first-year men's Viking Chorus; first-year women's Manitou Singers; two of the largest choirs at St. Olaf, the Chapel Choir; and the Cantorei, and the famed 75-member St. Olaf Choir, plus the 90 member St. Olaf Orchestra.

And the sounds these students create is full of magic — peaceful at times, hushed and contemplative — and then at others so grand, full, like a heavenly chorus.

But this magic doesn't just happen. Steve Amundson is the Conductor of the orchestra and he says the minute last year's festival finishes, the faculty sit down and begin planning the next festival.

"It's really a team effort. We tend to pick a few pieces that we're excited about doing. And as we look at the texts of the pieces we're doing, our creative energies kick into high gear and we start thinking about words, images and ideas, and in doing so we come up with lots of ideas. We liked the idea of wonder and gift and Christ as the gift to the world and it just conjures up lots of images visual and otherwise."

The faculty conductors get the theme hammered out, and pick their songs, and then they have to prepare the choirs, which is not an easy task, especially considering about a third of the students are in their first years and may never have seen the Christmas Festival before.

Sigrid Johnson leads an entire choir of first year students — the all-female Manitou Singers — and I just had to ask her, how does she get these girls to sound like angels?

"It's called prayer. No, we take them down and show them the space, and we try to let them know what's going on but it's just talk until we are actually doing it.

Every time I have an opportunity to with a teacher or student, they talk about process — choosing the music, rehearsing, memorizing, finding the spots for all these musicians on the risers — but in the end, it's the moment itself, one that in the midst of the beautiful music awakens us to the message of Christmas. Anton Armstrong says it the best.

"We purposely begin without words to allow the listener to come into their own sphere of influence. And for some it's the wonder as they're surrounded by the choirs and the audience, and then they hear these voices as they process to the stage, and then we start unraveling this message in as many ways as possible and I think every year — those who have heard it forty-some odd times or are hearing it for the first time — seem spellbound and they seem touched."

Program

Corde natus (World Premiere)
Matthew Peterson
St. Olaf Orchestra (Steven Amundson) 

Of the Father's Love Begotten
13th Century Plainsong, arr. Christopher Aspaas
Massed Choir (Christopher Aspaas)

Carol of the Advent
Besancon Carol Tune, arr. Philip Dietterich, orch. James E. Bobb (World Premiere)
Massed Choirs and St. Olaf Orchestra (James E. Bobb)

Narration
Pastor Matthew Marohl

Processional Hymn: O Lord, How Shall I Meet You
Tune: Valet Will Ich Dir Geben
Melchior Teschner, arr. John Ferguson
Massed Choirs, Audience, and St. Olaf Orchestra (Steven Amundson)

Wake, Awake, For Night is Flying
Philipp Nicolai, arr. F. Melius Christiansen
Massed Choir (Anton Armstrong)

'Tis Winter (World Premiere)
Christopher Aspaas
St. Olaf Chapel Choir (Christopher Aspaas)

Hosanna to the Son of David
Orlando Gibbons
St. Olaf Cantorei (James E. Bobb)

Wondrous Morning Star (World Premiere)
Greg Nelson, arr. Phillip Keveren
Manitou Singers (Sigrid Johnson); St. Olaf Orchestra, Philip Biedenbender '16, Piano

'Twas in the Moon of Winter (World Premiere)
French Melody, arr. John Helgen
Viking Chorus; Nathan Cleaveland '18, piano; Kristina Butler '17, flute; Micah Stoddard '16, bass (Christopher Aspaas)

Cold December Flies Away
Catalonian Carol, arr. Rene Clausen
St. Olaf Choir; Joshua Weinberg '15 and Margaret Schenk '16, flute; Tucker Moore '15, percussion (Anton Armstrong)

HYMN: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Tune: VENI EMMANUEL

French Processional, arr. John Ferguson Massed Choirs and St. Olaf Orchestra (James E. Bobb)

Gospel Reading: Luke 2:1-20
Pastor Matthew Marohl & Associate Pastor Katherine Fick

HYMN: O Come, All Ye Faithful
Tune: ADESTE FIDELES

attr. John F. Wade, arr. John Ferguson, descant by David Willcocks
Massed Choirs, Audience, and St. Olaf Orchestra (Sigrid Johnson)

Hodie
Robert W. Parker
Massed Choir & St. Olaf Orchestra (Christopher Aspaas)

African Noel
Liberian Folk Song, arr. Andre Thomas
Viking Chorus; William Arnold '18 and Sedrick Spradling '18, percussion (Christopher Aspaas)

Star Carol
Alfred Burt
St. Olaf Cantorei (James E. Bobb)

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day
English Traditional Carol, arr. John Rutter
Manitou Singers; Jenny Allen '17, harp (Sigrid Johnson)

In Winter's Night
Traditional Swedish Melody, Setting by Charles Forsberg
St. Olaf Choir; Charles Gray, viola (Anton Armstrong)

This Little Light of Mine
Traditional Spiritual, arr. Anthony Leach
St. Olaf Choir; Aaron Kohrs '16, piano; Tucker Moore '15, percussion (Anton Armstrong)

Alleluyah Sasa! He is Born
Ben Allaway
St. Olaf Chapel Choir; Nicholas Swanson '17 and Andrew Kreye '17, vocal solo; Alex Gerleman, William Arnold, John Kornlokken, Michael Betz, Tim O'Grady, percussion (Christopher Aspaas)

With Joyful Hearts (World Premiere)
Steven Amundson
St. Olaf Orchestra (Steven Amundson)

Carols for Choirs and Orchestra
arr. John Ferguson
Massed Choir - Individually and as an ensemble (All Conductors)

He Came Down That We May Have Love
Cameroon Traditional

Love Has Come
F. Seguin

On Christmas Night
English Traditional

Toda la tierra (All Earth is Hopeful)
Alberto Taule

Jeg er sa glad (I Am So Glad)
Peder Knudsen

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! (Silent Night, Holy Night!)
Franz Gruber

Angels We Have Heard on High
Tune: GLORIA

French Carol, arr. Robert Scholz
Massed Choirs, Audience, and St. Olaf Orchestra (Steven Amundson)

Gesu Bambino
Pietro A. Yon Massed Choirs & St. Olaf Orchestra (Sigrid Johnson)

Narration
Associate Pastor Katherine Fick

And God Said: One Day Shall Dawn (King David)
Arthur Honegger
Massed Choirs and St. Olaf Orchestra (Anton Armstrong)

RECESSIONAL HYMN: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Tune: HYFRYDOL

Rowland H. Prichard, arr. John Ferguson
Massed Choirs, Audience, and St. Olaf Orchestra (Steven Amundson)

Narration
Pastor Matthew Marohl

Stay With Us (Captive and Free)
Egil Hovland
Massed Choirs & St. Olaf Orchestra (Sigrid Johnson)

Beautiful Savior
Silesian Folk Tune, arr. F. Melius Christiansen
Massed Choirs (Anton Armstrong)