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Concoria’s Gift to the Midwest

By Nick Proulx

Some people like to say it’s “Concordia’s gift to the Midwest.” We’re talking about their annual Christmas Concerts of course. Arguably the richest Christmas tradition in the region, these performances have been a staple of winter in the valley for 86 years now. In the mid-‘70s they took the show on the road to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, the primary performing facility for the Minnesota Orchestra. The concerts have even been broadcasted nationwide a number of times on PBS.

So what makes them so special? For starters, they tend to take on a worship sort of feel; there isn’t applause between every piece. There is a constant stream of music and narration enhanced by visual art. It’s a compelling mix that brings thousands of people coming back year after year.

We sat down with three gentlemen who play major roles in bringing the concerts together year-in and year-out, and here’s what they had to say:

Gordon Moe
Associate Director of Music Organizations, Manager of Choral Ensembles

His role: Executive producer/manager, whatever sounds more glamorous (take your pick). He handles all aspects of concert and keeps the event moving forward. Moe coordinates logistics, promotion, ticketing and other technical details.

This guy is always in the holiday spirit; his job requires it.

“The phrase I like to use is that I celebrate Christmas year-round. Literally, as soon as we put one Christmas concert away we start planning the next, and start improving for the next year.”

He points out that there are approximately 450 music students at Concordia, some of whom begin working toward these concerts as soon as they unload their gear at the start of fall semester. All in all, he estimates over 10,000 hours go into it each year from the students alone. That being said, the payoff is huge.

“For many of them this is a life-changing event. They get to be part of something that is beyond anything they would be able to accomplish as an individual.” Without meaning to sound trite, Moe explained it’s something they probably won’t have a chance to do again in their lives. “To be part of this ensemble of performers that can sing beautiful, sacred Christmas music to about 18,000 people, it’s a pretty powerful experience for the performers.”

René Clausen
Conductor of the Concordia Choir

His role: For 27 years now he has come up with the theme of the Christmas concert. This year’s theme is “All Are Welcome.”

“In a certain way I guess you could call me the chef, but there are lots of cooks.”

Much like Moe, Clausen starts considering new themes as soon as he’s hung up his tailcoat from the last concert. Coming up with those themes, he insists, isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“When you think about creating a theme, those words have to be kind of etched and chiseled — it’s not just a group of words. It has to somehow portray the message of the concert and yet also have a poetic sense about it: A sense of grace about the title that gives it definition, color and purpose. If someone reads the theme of the concert this year, ‘All are Welcome,’ it should create a certain image and invitation to want to come to the concert.”

Over the course of a year, he’ll knock around different ideas, write down words in different orders, look to scripture or read hymns for inspiration. He’s never quite sure where the next theme will come from, so he has his mind open to any possibility.

He admits that “All Are Welcome” isn’t overtly Christmas, but assured that a bulk of the music would be Christmas music; it is a Christmas concert, after all. He says it will evoke a sense of joy and community though, regardless of one’s walk of life: Butcher, baker or candlestick maker, there are no exclusions. Some brand new music will be thrown in for good measure. When put together, it should provide an escape from the mundane, as well as the commercialized take on Christmas — thanks largely to the performers rather than himself, Clausen insists.

“It’s all about the students in the end. Us conductors can stand up there and wave, but conducting solos don’t sound very good [laughs]. The students sing and play, and they are the ones who deliver the message through song.”

Paul Johnson
Art Instructor at Alexandria Technical and Community College

His role: This is his fourth year creating the mural that provides a backdrop for the concert.

In early June, he gets together with Clausen for lunch to discuss the theme for the concert and asks what he would like to see visually. He’ll then take whatever material Clausen provides for him, whether it’s hymns, scripture or other influences, and look for reoccurring themes that he can use. Johnson then makes sketches and thumbnails for himself before submitting a proportional drawing in July or August for approval.

“There’s a lot of space to work with — it’s over 170 feet long — but when you’re dealing with these different hymns it doesn’t take very long to fill it up,” he said.

He then sets out tracing the drawing on his computer — a process that takes so much time that he doesn’t bother keeping track of hours anymore. Per usual, he submitted a digital version in mid-October, enough time for any issues that arised to be fixed. Considering Johnson has wanted to be a liturgical artist since childhood, being a part of the concerts has been rewarding on more than a few levels.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to inspire people. Concordia’s field house turns from a gymnasium into a church, basically, when they do that — it’s pretty amazing. The background is just a side note; the sound is phenomenal. To have a little part to add to it is a great scenario for an artist because it’s really a one of a kind experience.”

This years concerts are taking place at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, at 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8 and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9. All showings are at the Concordia Memorial Auditorium. Buy your tickets online at www.cord.edu/Music/christmas1.php, or call (888) 477-0277.

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