This year, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, a tradition dating back to 1912, will be held in one of the nation’s finest concert halls. The move will provide better sound, better seats, and better ambiance — except in a concert hall 50 miles north of Northfield.
As one of the oldest musical celebrations of Christmas in the United States, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival moves from Skoglund gymnasium on campus to Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis.
Called “one of the nation’s most cherished holiday celebrations,” the Festival features three performances of the “Promise of Peace” concerts, Friday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m., plus Saturday, Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. At press time, all three concerts were sold out.
Anton Armstrong, conductor of St. Olaf Choir and artistic director of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, said he’s excited for students and conductors to be able to perform in one of the jewels of Minnesota.
“Skoglund is fine,” Armstrong said during a Zoom interview with Michael Kyle, vice president of enrollment and college relations. “But this is a wonderful opportunity to be in a venue with such a high aesthetic experience,” he said.
Making the move was not an easy decision for Armstrong and his musical team.
“This is an exploration,” explained Armstrong. “This is our first time with ticketing, transportation, hotel rooms. We will learn from this.”
“We did not sign a multi-year contract with Orchestra Hall.”
Of the 37,000 alumni, the negative feedback the college received was probably from less than 100 people, said Michael Kyle, Vice President for Enrollment and College Relations.
Both men, who are longtime employees of the college as well as alumni, are looking at the change as a chance to open up the magic to new listeners through new and different channels.
“We would be thrilled for the Northfield community to take advantage of this opportunity to hear this program ,” said Kyle.
Armstrong said when the opportunity to perform in a top-notch venue built for musical performance came up this year, his team considered the fact that the venue, like other performing arts facilities needs revenue after being shut down during COVID, and other colleges like need revenue and St. Thomas and Concordia hold their concerts there.
“We’ve been performing four concerts during Christmas Festival since 1989,” he said. “This was a top down decision. Over 68% of the students are excited about the new venue.”
To accommodate those community members and alumni in the Northfield-area, St. Olaf is providing bus service from campus to Orchestra Hall. Kylie said there’s also been an effort to promote other on-campus activities the weekend of Dec. 2-4. (See Did You Know? box for a full schedule.)
Armstrong and Kyle, ‘85, realize that for many people, over several generations, the celebration of the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany season begins with the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival.
“Promise of Peace” will be led by five conductors and feature more than 500 student musicians from the college’s world-renowned choirs and orchestra. This year’s program features repertoire of classic Advent and Christmas compositions, familiar carols, global hymns, and contemporary pieces.
Anton Armstrong ’78 is artistic director of the Christmas Festival and conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. Tesfa Wondemagegnehu is conductor of the Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus. Therees Tkach Hibbard conducts the Manitou Singers. James E. Bobb leads the St. Olaf Cantorei. The St. Olaf Orchestra is conducted by Chung Park.
“Coming out of COVID, we’re looking at performances with fresh eyes,” said Armstrong. “This is a makeover for us in a wonderful way. St. Olaf doesn’t do anything in mediocre fashion.”