MOORHEAD, Minn. — As the new Concordia Choir conductor, Michael Culloton was looking forward to his first year leading the traditional Concordia Christmas Concert, an annual highlight at the college for 92 years.

Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic shut down campus in March, he started wondering how it would look this year. By the end of June, he knew the concert would be a virtual one.

In mid-November, when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 just before the performances were to be filmed, an old axiom rang true: The show must go on.

“That made a tough project even tougher,” Culloton says.

His colleague, choral manager Wyatt Steinke, found the biggest TV screen on campus and wheeled it into Memorial Auditorium, so Culloton could conduct via video.

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“They sang the socks off of it. I was so proud of them.”

The public can see and hear for themselves when Concordia offers this year’s Christmas concert online for free, from Friday, Dec. 18, through Dec. 27.

Producing the show was especially important this year.

“I’m pleased that we’re able to show something to the community. This was our work in this historic time, to capture this historic moment of time,” he says. “Our campus would really be a different place if we had to shut down the music building until after COVID. In a funky time in students’ lives, I’ve been able to see joy in them in everything from a 20-voice mini-choir rehearsal. For some, this was the only meaningful interaction that day.”

This year’s show will look and sound like no other. Not only will viewers see Culloton conducting from a screen, they’ll also see the orientation of the concert flipped, with the singers performing in the stands, where the audience would normally sit.

The move was for safe social distancing as the concert traditionally packs about 350 singers into risers on the auditorium floor, with another 50 or so instrumental musicians gathered around.

Singers stood in the stands of Memorial Auditorium for safe social distancing while recording the 2020 Concordia Christmas Concert. Special to The Forum
Singers stood in the stands of Memorial Auditorium for safe social distancing while recording the 2020 Concordia Christmas Concert. Special to The Forum

While safety precautions wouldn’t allow that many artists so close together this year, Culloton kept individual numbers limited, but added even more ensembles spread out through the concert for a total of around 600 musicians.

“There’s no rule book for Christmas concerts in a time of COVID,” he says. “This was the year to get more students involved.”

In addition to Concordia’s Choir, Chapel Choir, Cantabile (sopranos and altos) and Kantorei (first-year singers), this year’s concert features the orchestra, band and percussion ensemble.

Percussion was added to this year's Concordia Christmas Concert. Special to The Forum
Percussion was added to this year's Concordia Christmas Concert. Special to The Forum

“It’s beautiful to hear the voice and percussion, especially the marimba. It’s such a rare combination, such a special touch,” Culloton says, crediting the school’s director of percussion, David Eyler.

Singers wear their traditional robes, different colors for the different ensembles but all in matching, baby blue surgical masks, which Culloton says were better for singing than cotton masks that muffled the voice. Similarly, instrumentalists were also masked, even the bells on brass and woodwinds.

“Viewers will be very surprised how clear the singing will be,” the conductor says, adding that he’d be comfortable releasing this performance as much as any other.

“We made it work in some ways better than I’d hoped for,” he adds.

While so much will look and sound different, the program has many familiar elements, including narration from Peter Halvorson and Rachel Horan.

With singers in the stands, there was no room for Paul Johnson’s new mural, though it is still featured in the video.

Paul Johnson's mural for the 2020 Concordia Christmas Concert is featured in the video presentation of the show. Special to The Forum
Paul Johnson's mural for the 2020 Concordia Christmas Concert is featured in the video presentation of the show. Special to The Forum

Per tradition, the concert begins and ends with the chiming of bells and the finale, “Compline,” a tradition started by Culloton’s predecessor, René Clausen.

“I thought, ‘If we get 'Compline,' that will be one of the great accomplishments,’” Culloton says.

Unfortunately for many students, another one of Clausen’s standards, an arrangement of “Silent Night,” couldn’t be performed this year due to the number of singers required for full effect.

On the last day of choir classes this semester, Culloton told the students they could sing the classic together over Zoom. The announcement was met with students jumping up and down and more than a few tears of joy.

Culloton says he’ll take some time after the concert streams to relax and reflect before planning next year’s concert.

“We’ve got to let science try to heal us. I’m going to try to be patient, but I’ll always be very anxious,” he says. “We’re very excited to return to a regular concert next year. Hopefully. What a triumphant return that will be, and ‘Silent Night’ will be there waiting for us when we return again.”

Watch the concert

The 2020 Concordia Christmas Concert will be available to watch Dec. 18-27. The concert is free to watch, but registration is required at https://continueatconcordiacollege.regfox.com/2020-concordia-christmas-concert.