Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 3, 2007

The Simulcast of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival

My wife and I have enjoyed listening to the exquisite a cappella harmonies of the St. Olaf choir for many years. They rank a close second to John Rutter’s choral music, in our judgment. So, we jumped at the chance to hear and see the famous annual St. Olaf Christmas festival live this year. No, we were not one of the lucky 12,000 to secure a ticket for the concert on-campus; those are annually snapped up very early by students and alumni. We rather bought tickets for the first simulcast of the concert that was held in close to 200 theatres across the nation yesterday afternoon. Only approximately 50 people were at our theatre; most were over 45 or even older — just like us. Evidently the iPod generation has little interest in choral music.

The festival includes over 500 college musicians and singers drawn from the five St. Olaf choirs and the St. Olaf orchestra. This year’s program was entitled “Where Peace and Hope and Love Abide,” music in a time of war, according to Anton Armstrong, the festival director.

I am not a music critic by any means; my college choir director indulged my being part of the choir, I am sure. So, my comments on the concert are from an ordinary music listener.

  • I found it difficult to follow the thread that unified the program and illustrated the theme. Those of us in the theatre did not have a program, which would have helped somewhat. Frankly, I did not catch too much of an Advent spirit in the selections.
  • Unless you were a professional musician, you would have had difficulty appreciating the arrangements of pieces from the classical repertoire. Many of the pieces were new to me, which made them difficult to follow. Perhaps these immensely talented directors overstepped the balance between their desire to show off the prowess and range of their singers and the desire of their audience to get into the spirit of Advent and Christmas with familiar hymns and carols.
  • Perhaps it was the acoustics in the theatre or perhaps it was my declining hearing ability, but I found it difficult to understand the words of much of the music. They sang a few familiar hymns and carols, some of which we even sang together in the theatre, but too few for my enjoyment.
  • The first 20 minutes of the broadcast highlighted the history of the choir from its origin in the early 20th century down to the present. It certainly has a long and distinguished history, but, unless you were an alum, this could have been eliminated, in my judgment.
  • Despite the fact that we were seeing the festival on a theatre screen and listening to it with theatre speakers, I was disappointed in the quality of the presentation. Nothing could or can replace the actual experience of being immersed in the sights and sounds of the concert. (We couldn’t even enjoy the wondrous smells of the pre-concert smorgasbord, especially the lutefisk.) The inability of technology to replicate that experience was quite evident. Having become accustomed to HD tv, the fuzzy images of the broadcast were painfully apparent. (Yes, I know that I am spoiled.) We did not have surround-sound that would have enabled us to ‘feel’ the music of the choirs as they were circled around the auditorium for the opening and closing of the program.
  • The broadcast directors were faced with a very difficult choice of what to focus on for a two-hour concert. When you are sitting in the concert hall, you can focus on any number of objects, from the person to your left, to the first-chair violin, to the tall, lanky male in the middle, to the animated directors. Your eyes are constantly darting around the auditorium, never focusing for too long on a single spot. The camera does not have that luxury; it must move slowly from spot to spot so as not to disorient you. The result is ‘singing heads’: long, often painfully long, shots of young people singing, and long, slow pans of rows and rows of singers. After you have seen them once, how many more times do you need to see them, unless you are a proud relative? The camera rather ‘forced’ us to watch the cellist and one small group of female singers so long, at times, that I felt like a voyeur and had to turn away. The camera tried to vary the picture by briefly panning the audience, but, apart from noticing the thousands of Norwegian sweaters (“hmm, I have one just like that!”), that was boring as well. I am not sure what other options the broadcasters had, though.
  • The amount of musical talent packed into that auditorium was remarkable, from the singers, to the musicians, to the directors.
  • Seeing this festival reminded me of how rich my Minnesota heritage is in choral singing, largely from the Lutheran tradition. My Twin City friends and relatives have a smorgasbord of Lutheran choirs to enjoy this Christmas season. We envy them for that privilege.

My wife and I both agreed that the simulcast was disappointing; we will likely not attend a future one. We would much rather sit at home, put on one of the choir’s many excellent Christmas CDs, crank up the stereo, and be enthralled by this mode of a ‘virtual’ concert. We will also, of course, keep careful watch of the choir’s concert schedule to see how far we would have to drive to hear them in person in a ‘real’ concert. Now that would be most enjoyable and spiritually uplifting.

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