One more word about this year’s Christmas Festival. . . which from all accounts was the most splendid that Carthage has ever mounted. . . Over and over I heard from people that it was the best they had ever seen, and even though my own personal participation was only as one of the accompanists, it felt grand to be even a small part of it all.
For the students involved, Christmas Festival is a gigantic undertaking which happens to come a week and a half before final exams – so the timing of it is difficult. (I heard one singer joking that Christmas Festival would be so much easier for the students if they would just move it to October. Of course, the fact that one hears “Frosty the Snowman” over the speakers at Walgreen’s on September 30th makes that proposal not seem quite so absurd. But I’m pretty certain that Carthage will not succumb to the pressures of the outside world and do the Christmas Festival any earlier.) The other reality of the calendar is that our students have a full week’s vacation the week of Thanksgiving – which as far as the conductors are concerned is a full week to forget everything . . . and which makes the week leading up to Christmas Festival just that much more frantic as lost ground is made up on top of throwing the students into all of the new challenges of putting this all together with sound and lights and setting, etc. Given all that, I am always gratified that the students embrace it all as enthusiastically as they do. Not across the board, every minute of every rehearsal – we’re not talking about a bunch of Albert Schweizer’s and Mother Teresa’s here – but to an amazing degree the students know that they are part of something significant and shoulder the obligation (including the tedium) with amazing grace. (Part of the reason is that the coordinators of the Festival, Peter Dennee and Charlotte Chell, are sensitive to the reality of students’ lives and respectful of their time, as well as deeply appreciative of their talents. That makes all the difference, I think.) And of course, once the long rehearsals are done and the actual performances begin, everything changes – and so much of any frustrations that might have arisen along the way are pretty much washed away. One more Christmas miracle.
And even among the most grizzled veterans for whom the newness of the Christmas Festival is a thing of the past and for whom this represents a burden to be borne rather than a thrill ride to be enjoyed, one comment would be so often be heard- “but the candlelight service always gets me.” Which I find fascinating. . . because this is the part of the Christmas Festival that is the most unchanging from year to year. . . and it is also that part of the Festival which in no way yields glory to any individuals or to any particular choirs. Nothing glorious is happening musically. There is a splendid simplicity to the proceedings, involving something as primeval as candlelight and the old old hymn Silent Night. For the generation wired to iPods, Wii, YouTube, the fact that they can be so utterly beguiled by this candlelight service is astonishing to me. Of course, for many of them it isn’t a moment about candles as much as it is about the True Light who entered our darkness on a night long ago in Bethlehem. And even for those students who do not embrace this particular belief, this candlelight service is a moment when they all become One, part of something much bigger than themselves. Even in a world laced with technological wonders of every kind, there is something truly wondrous about this.
pictured above: the candlelight service from Sunday’s Christmas Festival. I have to say a quick word about snapping this picture. I really should not be taking pictures from up front like this, but I was determined to at least try – and also determined not to be noticed. So as I sat at the piano just beforehand, I surreptitiously took out my camera from my pants pocket and held it close to my body as I turned it on, cancelled the flash, and then flipped the screen on the back of it shut, which in that darkness made the camera all but invisible to anyone in the audience. (Just to make sure it didn’t shut off from inactivity, every few seconds I would press the shutter button and take a picture of the floor.) Once the candlelight and spread through the choir, I quietly lifted the camera up, set it on the piano beside me, pointed it towards the choir, and then just started pressing the shutter button – pointing it a slightly different direction – pressing it again – and just hoping that even one of the pictures would turn out halfway decently. I had no idea if what I took would be of the ceiling, or a bunch of dark trousers, or a bright-colored blur. . . but as you can see from the results, I was the recipient of my own Christmas miracle.