The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 1, 2013

Christmas at Bethany: Annual holiday concerts a tradition dating back to WWII

Holiday concerts at college date back to WWII

By Amanda Dyslin
adyslin@mankatofreepress.com

---- — When the Christmas at Bethany concert begins late afternoon, the setting sun creates a glow in Trinity Chapel. And as the concert begins, and night falls, the dim chapel lighting and the lit Christmas trees create a warm, cozy feeling among the performers and guests in the pews.

That's one of Music Professor Ann Fredrickson's favorite parts of the longtime holiday tradition at Bethany Lutheran College. Each year she leads the Mary Martha Singers choir in the Christmas at Bethany concerts, and then she sits in the back with her knitting to take in the performances of her colleagues and students.

“For me it's kind of the kickoff to the Christmas season. There's something about it. I sit and listen to everything that's not my part every evening, and every year I get something new out of it,” Fredrickson said. “It's meant to still and quiet you and focus you at a time of year that you're neither still nor focused.”

Dennis Marzolf, director of the music department, said Christmas at Bethany concerts can be traced back as early as the late 1920s when a choir first was formed on campus and informal choral performances were given.

During World War II, students began the tradition of singing carols by the stained glass in Old Main, and then in the late 1940s the Christmas programs began to morph into more formal affairs.

The Christmas concerts have been held at a variety of locations; they even were held in the gym at one point. But in the 1990s, Christmas at Bethany was moved to Trinity Chapel where it's been held ever since. The concerts have grown in popularity over the years. Marzolf and Fredrickson joke about guests being packed into the pews, adding to the concert's “cozy feeling.”

Marzolf said organizing the concerts has always been the bailiwick of the Bethany choir director. So, many years ago he inherited the long-standing duty, which comes with an enormous amount of work. More than 100 students perform each year, and pieces have to be selected and practiced for months leading up to the performances.

Marzolf directs and chooses music for the Handbell Choir, Men's Choir and Concert Choir. Fredrickson directs and selects pieces for the Mary Martha Singers. And Music Professor Adrian Lo chooses the music to lead his String Band.

“We all kind of go our own way with our group,” Marzolf said. “And then at the very end of October, I put the program together based on them.”

Marzolf said the concerts never have themes or “catchphrases” from carols. Instead, it's a “Christmas buffet,” he said, with the Christmas story at the heart of the program. Bible readings sprinkled throughout the program reflect that.

Marzolf noted "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" as a challenging piece that will be a highlight of this year's program.

Lo said the String Band's main piece will be Mannheim Steamroller's “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

As always, Fredrickson said her selections will be varied and from different eras. “I try to include something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” she said.

Two highlight pieces will include the carol "Now Sing We, Now Rejoice" and a new composition of the old text for "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.”

“It's stunningly beautiful,” Fredrickson said.

If you go What Christmas at Bethany concerts When 4-6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, Dec. 4-8, in Trinity Chapel, Bethany Lutheran College Admission Tickets are free but reservations are encouraged by calling 345-7365.