Ah, yes, the Christmas Concert!
This last Saturday we headed up to my beloved alma mater to attend the annual Concordia Christmas Concert. It was good, as always. It's always a treat to experience a sea of sacred Christmas music well done by hundreds of young musicians, and one of the trademarks of the Concordia concert is the mural designed by alum liturgical artist David Hetland. During the program various parts of the mural are illuminated to highlight the theme (this year's mural had everything from the Nativity scene to a woman in a wheelchair to an elephant and giraffe), and at times unexpected new designs are brought out of the mural by a change in the color of the lighting.
I wouldn't say that this year's concert was my favorite, though it wasn't at all bad. The 2000 & 2001 concerts were especially stirring, and the 2002 one was nice in a more subdued way. Then we didn't make to the concert again until this year. Usually there are a few more selections of "music from around the world", as well as 2-3 Afro-American spirituals and at least one Russian piece, and I missed those things this year. Oh well, it can't be perfect all the time.
The Christmas concert always brings to mind the one year that I was in it, 1986. My senior year was the first year that Dr. René Clausen was the conductor - perfect timing, because 49-year conductor Paul J. Christiansen (son of F. Melius Christiansen) had never included the orchestra in the Christmas concert, only a brass choir along with the vocal choirs. But Clausen introduced the orchestra, so for one grand year I actually had the opportunity to be in the concert (not that the orchestras didn't have grand concerts of our own, of course).
This concert, and others like it, highlight a great Lutheran choral tradition which is an example of what I call "Lutheranism at its best". Lutheranism isn't always at it's best, of course (But as someone has said, only the mediocre are always at their best ... ) "Lutheranism at its worst" can be narrowly and even willfully ignorant of other spiritual traditions, but happily Lutheranism isn't always at its worst, either! "Lutheranism at its best" is a very open tradition to the best influences from all of christendom and all the world's great cultures. Though Lutheran chorale singing is certainly a key element in the Lutheran choral tradition, another thing that makes it strong is a genius for taking the best of many traditions and internalizing it. For example, a major influence in the "Christiansen style" is Russian choral music, and our lily-white upper-midwestern Scandinavian kids have been singing Afro-American spirituals for many years now, thanks in part to the Christiansens. That's part of why I missed those two things in particular this year, though there was one spiritual.
Clausen has done a good job of putting his own stamp on the concert and the tradition, without uprooting the foundations laid in the past. A ticklish thing, because Paul J. Christiansen had left big footprints during his 49 years as conductor of the Concordia Concert Choir. But Clausen pulled it off. I remember hearing this anecdote from Clausen's first day at his new job, back in 1986: he walked into the rehearsal hall and told the gathered choir, "My name is René Clausen, and I got this job because my name starts with C and ends in -sen! Now we've got lots of work to do, so let's get started ... "
It occurred to me during the concert that things have come full circle, as I was on campus during 1983-1987, and probably at least 90% of the student musicians in the concert were born during those exact years. Ah, yes, the passage of time!
For those with access to USA public broadcasting, watch for broadcasts of the Concordia concert, and ones like it (St. Olaf College, Luther College, Augsburg College, etc.). I highly recommend any of them.