Inspiring Christmas Performance

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Christmas Festival at St. Olaf College Does planning your own family’s holiday celebration feel too complicated? Gifts to wrap…cards to mail…food to prepare…

Imagine organizing four sold-out concerts, each involving more than 550 musicians and an audience of nearly 3,000 in a converted gymnasium. Mix in over a century of tradition showcasing choral and orchestral works – both cherished favorites and world premieres – and add a new live-streaming option. As we can attest, the result was truly inspirational.

Hallowed Tradition. The Christmas Festival at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., is one of the oldest Christmas celebrations in the United States; this was its 105th year. Four performances were held December 1-4, involving five St. Olaf choirs and the St. Olaf Orchestra.

We attended opening night and were impressed with all aspects – from the scenery, lighting and beautifully printed program to the outstanding musicianship and sense of community.

During several well-known songs, the audience was invited to stand and join the singing. Participating in such a mass choir was a moving experience. We imagine many alumni attending were former performers, as the collective sound was impressive. There was a joyful yet expectant calmness in the auditorium, befitting the season while belying the preparation required to pull it all together.

Moving Parts. “Planning the Christmas Festival is pretty involved, simply because there are so many different moving parts,” explains Jeff O’Donnell, Director of Broadcast Media Services at St. Olaf. He notes that scheduling is a challenge because the college’s primary auditorium doubles as the main campus gymnasium.

This facility hosted a men’s basketball game just 24 hours before the Festival’s dress rehearsal. After that game, the space was readied at 8 a.m. the next morning. O’Donnell says the Music and Athletic Departments cooperate closely; the college even purchased a portable basketball floor so the team can practice in the fieldhouse during the Festival.

A portable stage was erected over the basketball court for the orchestra, with secondary risers for certain brass and woodwinds. Behind the orchestra, the main stage featured a proscenium framing a large extendable bleacher system for the choirs.

The concert began with one choir onstage, while members of the four other choirs filled the side and rear aisles on the main floor. Eventually all the choirs combined onstage; during the concert they smoothly transitioned between single- and combined-choir pieces. To streamline the experience for the audience, while helping sustain the musical narrative, it was requested that all applause be held until the end, when the choir members again encircled the auditorium.

Careful Planning. Just as the student music ensembles spend the fall semester rehearsing, preparation is also essential for the operational staff working behind the scenes. O’Donnell brings 18 years of Festival experience, four years performing as a student and then behind-the-scenes involvement ever since. “It’s become part of the normal cycle of my year – and I love it,” he explains.

A large planning meeting in November brings everyone together to discuss the hour-by-hour timetable. This is followed up by smaller meetings and online coordination via a Google calendar.

College staff and students comprise the majority of the production team, which includes scenery and lighting crews, camera operators and recording engineers. Outside professionals join the effort, including a video producer/director team for Sunday’s live video stream.

For the audio portion, St. Olaf collaborates with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), which brings its own recording crew. O’Donnell describes their long-term collaboration with MPR as a “well-oiled machine” with everyone understanding their role. Sunday’s finale was broadcast live on MPR’s regional classical station.

Adding Streaming. Until this year, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival held the distinction of being the only major campus event that was not live-streamed by the college. O’Donnell says they previously lacked the infrastructure to do their signature event justice on par with their national PBS broadcasts.

Recent endowment earnings specifically earmarked for supporting audio/video recording prompted the decision to live stream. Fiber-optic links were installed between the auditorium and production studio. Additional cameras were also mounted, including remote-controlled, hand-held boom cameras that will also be used for other concerts and athletic contests.

For any music lover on your holiday gift list, a video download of the 2016 St. Olaf Christmas Festival is available for purchase here. Looking ahead to 2017, we highly recommend attending this memorable event in person if possible; tickets will go on sale starting in October.

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