The gift of a Christmas concert has been a holiday tradition for the University of Saint Thomas Music Department since 1988. This year—despite the need for special orchestration because of COVID-19—the tradition continues with a virtual presentation of “A Saint Thomas Christmas: Respite and Grace” in mid-December. The 33rd annual Yuletide musical will feature more than 300 student performers from six Saint Thomas ensembles—the Chamber Singers, Concert Choir, Liturgical Choir, String Orchestra, Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Donne Unite.

“I was determined last March when we first realized the impact COVID would have that we’d still produce a Christmas concert this year,” said Dr. Matthew J. George, professor and director of bands and orchestras at Saint Thomas. “This fall I’d check my email first thing every morning to see if our university president had made an announcement that all classes would need to be moved online. That would have been a death knell for performing ensembles. We’ve made it, and we were able to record all that needed to be recorded.

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Masked and socially distanced, Saint Thomas tuba player Will Pitner rehearses with other orchestra members for this year’s virtual Christmas concert. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“The concert is a flagship event for the university, and we wanted to keep that tradition going,” George said. “We wanted to share our music, especially in these difficult times. I also wanted to inspire our audience with the sheer will, resilience, tenacity and perseverance that our students exhibit each and every day. It wasn’t easy for them to be in rehearsal every week. In fact, for some students, the ensemble classes were the only in-person classes they had.”

“Students came in this fall so looking forward to making music together in person. They all experienced the March shutdown and the loss of their singing community, so it was so joyful from the very first rehearsal.”

This year’s resolve is similar to what was behind the first Christmas concert, performed when Saint Thomas was still a college. The late Monsignor Terrence J. Murphy was the school’s president then, and he wanted a Christmas concert featuring ensembles from Saint Thomas and neighboring Saint Catherine, then also a college. That concert was performed on December 11, 1988, in the Chapel of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

By 1993 the Christmas concert was being presented solely by the Saint Thomas Music Department with invitations extended to alumni. RSVPs were so numerous that several performances had to be added. By 1997 the ticket requests for four performances outnumbered the available seats by 2,000. Ten years later, the Christmas concert was moved to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis where it has been performed ever since. The performance has been recorded for rebroadcast by Twin Cities Public Television and distributed to stations nationwide.

“Presenting the event virtually is an enormous undertaking, much more demanding than streaming a symphony performance with one group of musicians,” said Saint Thomas senior violin performance major Vivian Murphy. “I don’t think any of us expected a Christmas concert this year. Even though the concert will look very different, we were all thrilled that there would be a formal recorded performance.”

 

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“Students came in this fall so looking forward to making music together in person,” said Saint Thomas alumna Angela Mitchell, who conducts the treble voice choir Donne Unite. “They all experienced the March shutdown and the loss of their singing community, so it was so joyful from the very first rehearsal.

“I think we knew from day one that the traditional Christmas concert wasn’t going to be possible,” Mitchell said. “We were all thrilled with the possibility of a virtual concert, so students still had an opportunity to share their work and the Christmas spirit.”

“We’re super-excited to share our music with everyone,” said Dr. Albert Pinsonneault, an assistant professor and the director of the Chamber Singers and Concert Choir. The effort on the part of the students, faculty and entire university to honor the necessary COVID-19 safety constraints has been nothing short of phenomenal, he said.

For Pinsonneault, that effort involved figuring out how to have the students sing together and still be safe. In the fall, he secured miniature pylons for outside class work to ensure students could be together yet distanced. The administration also honored Music Department requests for indoor rehearsal spaces where safe distancing could be arranged.

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Flutist Anna Check rehearses for the Tommies’ Christmas concert that is expected to be available on December 18 on YouTube. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“We’re strictly adhering to the safety protocols recommended by a national study on performance aerosol mitigation and to the protocols of the CDC and the state Department of Health,” George said. “That required our choral and instrumental ensemble members to wear special performance masks and be distanced no less than 6 feet and in some cases 9 feet apart.

“The woodwind and brass players have special covers for their bells to reduce aerosol emissions,” George said. “Rigorous entry and exit procedures as well as sanitation regulations were also in play. We have carefully orchestrated ventilation plans so that we’re always operating with clean air protocols. The days of everyone rehearsing together on stage, chairs and stands right next to each other, are now on hold.”

“We also had to be extremely careful with the time we spent singing,” Mitchell said. “For a typical Christmas concert, we’d rehearse at Orchestra Hall for a full 30 minutes alone and then would be recorded performing the piece three additional times. This year we had only one or two takes of each piece. We had to be very efficient.”

“There has been no virus spread traced to ensemble rehearsals, a fact for which we’re both proud and grateful,” said Music Department liaison Donna Matuszewski. “Our students have really shown resilience this year in adapting to all the changes, but what strikes me most is their gratitude. Musical expression is essential to their education, and they’ve embraced every challenge to ensure they’re able to continue and even thrive.”

“I’ve learned never to underestimate my own and others’ resourcefulness and resilience,” Vivian Murphy said. “I’ve been so impressed by my colleagues’ enthusiasm to adjust to a very different rehearsal environment. While the semester has been exhausting, I hope we’ve realized how we can meet our challenges head-on, creatively and with determination. Our systems and tools have grown significantly out of necessity to encompass a more virtual approach, which will help everyone, especially the music community, teach and perform with more flexibility and reach.”

The Christmas concert is expected to be available on December 18 on the University of Saint Thomas’ YouTube page. For updates and a link to the concert once it is released, visit link.stthomas.edu/respiteandgrace2020.

— Anne Murphy

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