A Sacred Holiday Tradition
With a slight movement of his thumb, Timothy Peter sets in motion the men of the Stetson Concert Choir, signaling them to take their places onstage. With a wave of his hand, a rich harmony of more than 200 voices fill Lee Chapel.
Peter, director of Choral Activities at Stetson University, is at the center of the School of Music’s annual Christmas Candlelight concerts, which begin Thursday night, Dec. 1, with four sold-out performances through Saturday, Dec. 3.
Christmas concerts are a longstanding tradition at Stetson, dating back more than 100 years. But Peter helped transform them into what they are today – a spectacular production of more than 200 student musicians from three choirs joined by a Chamber Orchestra, members of the brass and winds from the Symphonic Band, and organist.
Peter calls it “the sonic sound.” It features 90 minutes of sacred music of the holiday season performed inside the intimate Lee Chapel in Elizabeth Hall, with some songs performed by candlelight and the audience joining in on a few well-known Christmas carols.
When Peter arrived at Stetson in 2012, he brought with him a choral tradition found at many Midwest colleges, where elaborate Christmas concerts are often televised nationally. At Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he received his undergraduate degree and went on to become head of the music department, the annual “Christmas at Luther” concerts feature hundreds of students in six choirs and a symphony orchestra. They have been broadcast nationally on PBS, and are recorded and sold on CDs.
“The Midwest is known – that would be states like Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, the Dakotas and even all the way down to Texas – of really good choirs in colleges and universities,” he said during an interview in his office in Presser Hall, mentioning Luther, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.
“And those colleges all do Christmas concerts where they involve many of the different choirs and they’re always the same weekend, following the Thanksgiving Break, involving and engaging thousands of audience members,” he said.
A CHRISTMAS TRADITION
At Stetson, which has the state’s oldest collegiate school of music, the beloved Christmas concerts have a history spanning more than 100 years.
“Historically, Stetson as a Baptist institution centered the holiday season around the performances of the ‘Messiah,’ first presented in 1905,” Peter said, referring to composer Handel’s “Messiah,” a popular Christmas tradition. “Under the leadership of Prof. (Harold) Giffin, the ‘Messiah’ was the annual event and tradition for many, many years. In the 1950s, post-World War II, with more students returning back to campus on the GI bill, it expanded and in fact wasn’t just the ‘Messiah,’ but included other Christmas concert events.”
The performance changed again in the 1970s when new director of Choral Activities Robert Rich introduced a format similar to the King’s College, Cambridge, “Lessons and Carols,” a selection of Christmas music interspersed with Biblical and other readings, as well as a candlelight procession, according to the book, “Stetson University’s Choral History – A Reflection” by Patricia Fort.
“With some variations,” Fort writes, that format “continued for 40 years.” That is, until Timothy Peter, Ph.D., arrived in 2012 as a professor of music and director of Choral Activities. Up until that time, the concert mostly had featured one choir — Stetson’s premier touring choir, the Concert Choir.
But Peter, coming from the Lutheran college tradition of involving all of the choirs, knew Stetson had other good student choirs, too.
In his first year, he added the Stetson Men and Women’s Chorale on stage, in the balconies and in the aisles of the small Lee Chapel. He serves as conductor of the performance with Andrew Larson, D.M.A., a Stetson professor of music and associate director of Choral Activities who conducts the Women’s Chorale.
“When I came to Stetson, I involved all of the choirs, and more instrumentalists and developed it to be more a concert that I was used to from the Midwest,” Peter explained. “So the candlelight concert as you know it today is inclusive of brass, strings, winds, pipe organ and hundreds of singers — over two hundred student musicians.
“That’s the tradition that I am from and I’m bringing here a little bit — not to say that’s the only way to do it or the way that’s the most successful or prominent, but it’s my background.”
He invites the audience to stand and sing a few familiar Christmas carols with the choirs. He says he has noticed that audiences at Christmas performances tend to leave more satisfied when they hear a few of their favorite carols. So, he makes a point to balance each year’s repertoire with new music, like a Zimbabwe Christmas carol this year, and classic Christmas carols, such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.”
But the popular sing-alongs serve another purpose, as well.
“Those function as transition for the choirs taking different locations on the stage, under the organ, in the balconies, etcetera,” Peter explained. “So the formula that I use gives the opportunity for the audience to stand, sing some of their favorite carols that are led by the organ, brass, orchestra and all the choirs, but then when they sit down, there’s a different choir up front.”
The new format provides an excellent showcase for the talents of so many of Stetson’s vocal students, student musicians and faculty, said Masse, the dean of the music school.
“Since arriving at Stetson in the Fall 2012 as Director of Choral Activities, Tim Peter has brought his dynamic and consummate musicianship and experience to these concerts,” Masse wrote in an email. “Tim Peter and Andrew Larson have reinvigorated this Stetson tradition with exciting new repertoire and collective participation.”
ATTRACTING A CROWD
Given the grand scale and flawless performance by the Stetson students, the Christmas Candlelight Concerts are well-known for selling out — and fast.
Masse, the music school dean, said he’s been approached in his neighborhood while walking the dog and asked if he can get tickets for a neighbor — he can’t. The college has done everything possible to make as many seats available in the chapel because it’s simply not possible to add another performance – the fourth concert was added in 2012, due to demand.
“I would love to add more performances,” Masse said. “I could sell out the house I don’t know how many more times. But I have to be concerned about the students’ vocal health. This is the time of the year when they’re doing their voice juries, when they’re preparing for their final exams and I can’t take any more evenings away or weekends away.”
Ashley King, a Stetson senior, is a soprano and vice president of the Stetson Concert Choir. She got 14 tickets to this year’s concert, enough for her family and extended family in Ormond Beach, Port Orange and Orange City.
“It’s my family’s favorite concert of the year,” she said. “And it’s the most meaningful concert of the year for me. We get to hear all the choirs perform together, which doesn’t happen for any of the concerts during the rest of the year. There’s also a sacred aspect to the concert with all of the candles.”
Juan Suarez, a junior and a baritone in the Concert Choir, said his parents make the trip up from Boca Raton to see the performance.
“My parents make the drive every year just to watch me perform in it, whether I have a solo or not,” he said. “They just love the atmosphere of the night. It’s very homey. They just love the feeling and getting into the Christmas spirit.”
The concerts are set for Thursday and Friday nights at 7:30, with two performances on Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. For those without tickets, the Friday night concert will be live-streamed.
Peter, the Stetson director of Choral Activities, hopes the concerts spread a “message of peace and joy.”
“There’s a real sense of community,” he added. “Especially at the end, the candle-lighting is quite beautiful, all the glow of Christmas lights, the candles along the wall and the students with candles. It’s a beautiful finish to the concert and a warm holiday message Stetson shares with the audience.”
Hear Stetson University’s Christmas Candlelight Concert
The concert will air on 90.7 WMFE’s HD-2 classical station on Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016, at 10:38 a.m. and again at 6:39 p.m. To listen, tune your HD radio to 90.7-2, or live stream the concert at www.wmfe.org or through the 90.7 WMFE mobile app (download here: www.wmfe.org/wmfe-mobile-app).
Afterward, the broadcast will be archived and can be heard at www.wmfe.org/holidaymusic.