The Concordia Christmas concert is an annual tradition that emcompasses the spirit of Christmas and the many generations of the enduring Cobber community. It’s an event that 12,000 individuals attend every year, many traveling great distances. Approximately 400 students participate – totaling roughly 20% of Concordia’s student body – and it involves nearly every department and office across campus. This grand experience is the largest event the campus hosts annually and the region’s longest-standing holiday event.
How does this celebratory event come to fruition?
The Planning Process
The process of planning each year’s Christmas concert begins in June when Dr. René Clausen, artistic director of the Christmas concert and conductor of The Concordia Choir, chooses the theme of the concert. He collaborates with Dr. Michael Culloton – conductor of the Chapel Choir, Cantabile, and Kantorei – and Dr. Kevin F.E. Sütterlin – conductor of The Concordia Orchestra, in choosing repertoire and creating concert program components, such as the narration. After the theme has been decided, the artistic staff – which also includes lighting designer Bryan Duncan, executive producer of the concert Wyatt Steinke, and Kristen Kocher, administrative assistant for music ensembles – meets with Paul Johnson, who has been the concert’s mural artist since 2009. The team meets to discuss and brainstorm what the visual representation of the theme should look like, as it is a paramount aspect of the production. Johnson begins his work and presents multiple drafts until the entire team feels that it matches the overarching idea of the concert.
The Mural and Elements of Production
In designing the massive backdrop of the Concordia Christmas concerts, Johnson creates a digital file of the mural. He draws his ideas on paper and then traces his favorite parts of each sketch onto acetate, a transparent paper. That design is scanned into Illustrator, a graphic design software program, and then filled in with color. The entire process takes about four months.
The design is printed onto large strips of wallpaper and then pasted onto 44 wood panels that make up a 176-by-24-foot mural. To put this size into context, it is nearly as long as two basketball courts. The mural is set up in the north gym in late November during the week leading up to the Moorhead concerts. Volunteers including faculty, students, alumni, and community members help wallpaper the printed pieces onto the flats and then hoist them up by stacking the flats on top of each other and securing them.
Aside from the mural, there are seemingly countless elements that go into making the production come to life. Steinke, manager for choral activities, explains that, logistically, all departments must be involved in order for everything to run smoothly. Offices that are involved in the planning and production of the Concordia Christmas concerts include Alumni Relations, Athletics, the President’s Office, Cultural Events, Advancement, Communications and Marketing, Facilities Management, Conferences and Events, and many others.
Concordia Christmas Concert By the Numbers
569: Lighting channels to illuminate the concert. This includes 2,708 lighting parameters and 188 lights.
400: The approximate number of student performers in the concerts, including 350 vocalists and 50 instrumentalists.
176: The length of the mural in feet – almost the length of two basketball courts.
93: Number of years the annual concert has been held. It started as an extension of the Concordia Music Club, with the first concert performed in Old Main’s chapel. In 1928, it was moved to Moorhead’s Trinity Lutheran Church, later alternating between various venues in the Fargo-Moorhead area due to increasing public demand. In 1952, it moved back to campus after the new Memorial Auditorium was completed.
Dozens: Number of Norwegian sweaters you’ll likely spot in the audience.
5: About the number of years between recordings of the concert.
3: Number of conductors (Clausen, Culloton, and Sütterlin) directing the student performers. Clausen is only the second conductor of The Concordia Choir in the past 80 years, taking over for Paul J. Christiansen in 1986.
1: Tintinnabula Handbell Choir that performs a pre-concert show in Offutt Concourse before each concert.
Throughout the creation of the mural and initial stages of development, the student work also begins. Music is distributed to choral students at the end of September and full Christmas mode begins the beginning of October. For nearly nine weeks, regular rehearsals happen five days a week, Monday through Friday. Wednesdays are reserved for Mass Choir Wednesdays, in which all of the choirs rehearse together in the North Choral Room in Hvidsten Hall of Music. The mass rehearsals prove to be a great way to create community within and between the ensembles. The orchestra begins mid- to late-October on music and integrates into choral rehearsals in November.
Christmas Concert Week
Once the week of Christmas concerts begin, so does the busyness. Students rehearse every evening the week leading up to the concerts in Memorial Auditorium, layering day by day. Many choirs rehearse twice a day to ensure the musicianship is the best it can be. Each evening, a run-through of the concert is rehearsed – everything from transitions, to walking patterns, to the musical repertoire itself. Being a part of the production is certainly a time commitment and can be a challenge for students to balance class assignments, work, and even sleep.
Despite the perseverance necessary to keep the week running smoothly, students manage to have fun while working hard. There are theme days for rehearsals and, at the end of the week following Thursday’s dress rehearsal, there is a light show the lighting crew puts on. In what has become a tradition, Duncan creates a mini show displaying the elaborate lights that add to the various moods and emotions of the concert.
Following a full week of rehearsals, the opening concert begins Friday night and concludes Sunday afternoon. Prior to each concert, students warm up in Hvidsten with vocal exercises followed by a short devotional that gives students the right mindset heading into the concert. This is intended to be a time for students to become energized, focused, and ready for the upcoming performance.
Although being involved in the production is certainly a commitment, students continue to look forward to participating in the Christmas concerts year after year.
Curious to know the best part of being involved in the Concordia Christmas concerts? Here are the experiences for some of the students:
“My favorite part of the Concordia Christmas concerts is, of course, when we sing ‘Silent Night.’ The auditorium is dark and we all start walking back up to the stage. The minute I get to my spot, all the lights turn on, the audience stands up, and the sopranos sing an awesome descent and I cry every single time!” – Sam Davis ’21, The Concordia Choir
“I absolutely love how it involves every choral musician and The Concordia Orchestra. It truly showcases the collaborative nature of our music department.” – Zach Strickland ’21, The Concordia Orchestra
“Even though the process is long, it is incredibly rewarding. I grew up watching the concerts and am now in the music program, so this concert is incredibly important. It has been around for more than 90 years! I am now connected to so many people, alumni included, because of this concert. It makes me a bit emotional when I look into the audience and realize how lucky I am. I have to sit still, but in my mind I am screaming how much I love being a part of the Concordia Christmas concerts.” – Signe Johnson ’20, Chapel Choir
“My favorite part about being in the Christmas concerts is the collaborative experience the concert brings for the choirs and orchestra. As I play the cello, I can really embrace the music and my peers on a deep emotional level while having an overall fun experience.” – Dylan Tischer ’22, The Concordia Orchestra
“Although I have many favorite parts about being in the Christmas concerts, one of them is that I love being surrounded by people of all backgrounds and ages and being able to perform and share music with them. Each person’s life is so complex in today’s world and to be able to come together and provide music that touches those lives in some way is amazing.” – Emily Lech ’20, The Concordia Choir
“I most enjoy the feeling of community that is created when all of the choirs, orchestra, and audience are together. We’re all there to make and experience beautiful music, and the emotions that come from that collaborative performance are indescribable and irreplaceable. The concerts bring a little more humanity to our world that is sorely needed today.” – Nick Larson ’20, The Concordia Choir
We also asked Dr. Clausen and Dr. Culloton what they are most looking forward to about this year’s Christmas Concert, “My Spirit Sings.”
“There’s a lot of celebration in this year’s concert and I think that’s what I’m looking forward to the most – making this a celebration. The final big piece we’re doing this year is my scoring of ‘Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ and it is tremendously joyful. The theme fits that with gratitude and community. We find that this is a very special concert in our community that has enjoyed thousands of people’s support over the years. There’s a reason why they keep coming back, because they need to be fed what we have to say. What I’m not looking forward to is the last chime of ‘Compline.’ I have to plan how I’m going to handle that because if I don’t, my kids certainly won’t. It’s an emotional final moment of the concert.” – Dr. René Clausen
“I am excited about taking this last Christmas concert journey with Dr. Clausen. We’ve all programmed pieces that we loved so it will feel like Christmas, but on an extra musical level just getting to walk that path with him when he’s taking the last one. He’s picked some of his favorite pieces to do one last time; a few that he has chosen include ‘The Godly Stranger,’ ‘The Exaltation of Christ,’ and ‘Wake, Awake.’ I think there is a tendency for there to be autobiographical elements whenever it’s a conductor’s last concert, which I believe is the case here. He could’ve announced his retirement this January and no one would have known it was his final Christmas concert, but going into it and knowing that it’s his last one will make it very special for people.” – Dr. Michael Culloton
Experience the Concordia Christmas concert for yourself.
The Moorhead Christmas concerts will be performed in Memorial Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8.
The Twin Cities Christmas concerts will be performed at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12.
Tickets can be purchased online at ConcordiaChristmas.com, in person, or by phone.