St. Thomas Christmas Concert to air nationally on PBS

 

The St. Thomas Christmas Concert Sunday evening at Orchestra Hall was a made-for-television spectacle.

The crashing cymbals, foot-stomping choirs and singing band members of Sunday’s two performances indeed will play on screens across the country this December in a PBS special.

That her choir danced, clapped and swayed its way through unique arrangements of Christmas classics lines up with Festival Choir director Angela Broeker’s philosophy for all concerts, but “yes, it makes for good television viewing,” she said.

Twin Cities PBS (also known as TPT) produces the show every other year for St. Thomas, distilling footage from a dress rehearsal and two hour-and-a-half-long shows into a 51-minute special. The show is then distributed to PBS affiliates across the country.

Broeker said that the most up-tempo and exciting songs are the ones that make it past the edit booth.

This was reflected in the concert: The Symphonic Wind Ensemble’s “Brazilian Bell Carol” featured an interlude of whoops and hollers to emulate a Brazilian street party, Donne Unite bounced and clapped its way through a jazzy rendition of “Go Where I Send Thee,” and Festival Choir sang a rousing Zulu-language composition with two soloists, synchronized foot-stomping and a drum accompaniment by Yohuru Williams, the dean of St. Thomas’ College of Arts and Sciences.

The coordination between St. Thomas and TPT to make the show engaging begins weeks before anyone takes the stage. The music directors provide TPT producers with the music files and scores for every song, and each camera shot is planned out ahead of time, according to senior producer Lisa Blackstone.

“[The TPT director] sort of choreographs it in his mind,” Blackstone said. “And he has a really good imagination and a great knowledge of music.”

With eight cameras, including one on an arm that swings above the audience’s heads, the 350 musicians could be caught in a close-up shot at any time. Because of this, all performers must wear a layer of powder foundation and make sure they have no strands of flyaway hair.

Plus, producers wanted performers to minimize distracting movement on stage. So, a student in the orchestra — seated in front of the choir risers — could not turn around to watch a choral performance.

Senior Cassie Johnson of Donne Unite, the women’s choir, said having the show televised is a great experience, but students are often exhausted by the end of the marathon concert day.

“We have our dress rehearsal, that when we’re on TV, ends up being like a third performance,” Johnson said. “And so having that extra one televised… you’re doing three shows instead of two. It’s fun, but it gets to be a lot.”

A television-friendly concert relies on expressive faces in those close-up shots. Johnson said producers visited rehearsals in the weeks before the show to watch and urge students to show more facial expression.

Donors Alvin and Mary Agnes McQuinn have funded the production of the St. Thomas special on TPT since 2008. Alvin ran a profitable agriculture equipment business and serves on the St. Thomas Board of Trustees. McQuinn Commons in McNeely Hall is named after the family.

The concert marked more than just another round on PBS. It was also St. Thomas’ 30th annual Christmas concert and its 10th year at Orchestra Hall. Further, the concert served as the world premiere of Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s piece “So Bright the Star.”

The show featured musical performances from the Liturgical Choir; Donne Unite; Chamber Singers and Concert Choir, which together make up Festival Choir; the Symphonic Wind Ensemble; and the String Orchestra.

The show, “A St. Thomas Christmas: So Bright the Star,” will be broadcast on TPT at 8 p.m. on Dec. 24 and 9 a.m. on Dec. 25. A full schedule of its broadcasts across the country will become available under the “TV Listings” tab here.

Johnson said that having the concert nationally televised makes it easy for family who could not attend in person to watch the show. But will she watch herself on TV?

“Hundred percent. I’ll be up at 2 a.m. at the weirdest show times, and yup, I’ll watch them all,” Johnson said with a laugh. “This has been the coolest experience of my four years in choir, and I’m just really thankful that we get to do this.”

Sophie Carson can be reached at sophia.carson@stthomas.edu.

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