Monday, December 3, 2012

The advent of Advent

This would have been my 28th season of music ministry in the season of Advent.

I've been surprised to not really miss much about my work in the church over these past eight weeks. I've kept plenty busy. (In fact, instead of writing here this morning, I should be in my study space hunkering down on my term paper!) I've enjoyed the flexibility and freedom of the weekends with my Karen. Evenings home, with my reading finished for the day, and nowhere I have to be. All very sabbatical like.

A couple of weeks ago, it began to worry me that I was not missing the rehearsal of Christmas music. Perhaps the fact that I thought of that should have been a clue to what was really going on inside. Oh yes, we have missed Thursday nights with the choir at College Church. But why was I not missing the music-making that has shaped every week of my life for 26 years? (That missing year equals two sabbaticals.)

The illusion shattered this weekend, in the most dramatic and fulfilling way. It hit (beautifully) on Friday night, when we entered the gym at St Olaf College, for the annual Christmas Festival. This was our fourth or fifth time at the Festival, which stands in my mind as the epitome, the sine qua non, the exemplar of what a church or academy Christmas Festival can and should be.

I've never dreamed of getting a choir to perform to the standards of the St Olaf Choirs. But I have always heard Christmas music there that I've wanted to introduce to my choir. My life - and my choirs - have been enriched by the St Olaf tradition, Advent, Christmas, and et cetera. This year was no exception, except that I'm not now in a position to carry the candle back to a choir of my own. And that was when I truly began to miss the work with the people who get together weekly to make music for worship.

Old Friends Some things in the Festival that we've sung in my choirs: Holst, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; Ferguson, arr, He Comes to Us as One Unknown; Christiansen, Beautiful Savior (never more beautiful than when sung by the St Olaf choirs at the end of the Festival, circling the Skoglund Arena).

New Ideas I Could Use "Awake! Awake and Greet the New Morn" (Haugen, arr. Ferguson) Here, I thought, is a new Advent hymn that people would really love to sing. And maybe for another week, even, forget that what they really want is to sing Christmas carols too early. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (arr. K. Jennings) - a newly composed melody, and a brilliant setting for this familiar text. "Night of Silence" (Kantor, arr. Ferguson) - a setting to introduce and then accompany "Silent Night." Where have I been, to have missed this 1996 arrangement?

Gotta Look This Up Some things that would be fun to learn and use: I don't "know" the Poulenc Gloria, not as a conductor or singer, but only as a listener. Hearing "Laudamus te" reminded me that I have some work to do here. Conductor Christopher Aspaas had several arrangements in this program, each of them very, very nice. But one that stood out was his pairing of the American songs, "Poor Wayfarin' Stranger" with "I Wonder as I Wander." Lovely brilliance, that. His medley "Carols for the Choirs and Orchestra: Love and Joy come to you" was beautiful, and it was nice to see an alternate to the (rightly beloved) model by Carolyn Jennings, sung for years in this Festival.

Familiar and Welcome This is the first year after John Ferguson's retirement from St Olaf. It was good to see so much of his work still in the program. Along with settings by both Kenneth and Carolyn Jennings. I sometimes forget just how perfectly Ms Jennings wrote for choirs, and how well a good church choir can handle her work. Kenneth's work is lovely and impressive, and to my ear more usually better suited to the collegiate level choir. But it is always good to hear their work. Good on you, St Olaf, for keeping this repertoire going. Karen and I were at the Festival the year Steve Amundsen's "Angels' Dance" was premiered. It was great to hear this in person again. "Day Full of Grace," another Christiansen masterwork was also part of the program.

It was a surprise to hear no world music. It was a treat to see how many students in the orchestra sang along with the audience during the carols. And it was a huge surprise to see almost the full orchestra singing along on the final number, the aforementioned "Beautiful Savior." Our seats had never been so close to the orchestra, so perhaps this is nothing new and we just hadn't been able to see it. (Thankfully, St Olaf has managed to avoid the "Jumbotron" syndrome.) But I literally every orchestral face I could see was singing - and obviously singing voice parts - as the program concluded.

It was a little strange hearing all this before the first day of Advent. But it was glorious, and it stirred our hearts, and it prepared the way for this season that prepares the way. And, as always, it was worship. We were lost in wonder, love, and praise!

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