These ‘Lessons and Carols’ at Fresno Pacific are streaming instead of live, but the joyful message is the same
One of Fresno Pacific University’s cherished Christmas traditions is “A Festival of Lessons and Carols,” an annual celebration featuring the university’s performance ensembles within the structure of a special worship service. It’s usually performed live, of course, but like so many of our cultural experiences these days, the festival has made a digital transition. The good news is rather than only getting one opportunity for a live performance, the recorded version is available through Dec. 27.
Pictured above: Kaycee Bauer, a featured soloist, sings in Fresno Pacific’s virtual ‘Lessons and Carols.’
Pictured above: Kaycee Bauer, a featured soloist, sings in Fresno Pacific’s virtual ‘Lessons and Carols.’
There’s something else special about this year’s festival. It is a chance to introduce Jeffrey Wilson, the university’s new director of choral activities. The veteran educator comes to Fresno Pacific from Greenville University in Illinois.
I caught up with Wilson after enjoying the performance. (You can do the same by registering for free tickets at Eventbrite.)
Q: I just finished watching/listening to the video presentation, and I have to tell you, I am relaxed. And feeling peaceful. It’s a wonderful way to get into the holiday spirit. What kind of response have you gotten from audiences so far?
A: Donald, thank you for viewing Fresno Pacific’s 2020 virtual edition of our annual “A Festival of Lessons and Carols.” I’m glad to hear that it brought you a sense of calm and rest during this unusual holiday season. Others have expressed similar appreciation for this year’s program, as well as their amazement about how this sort of digital presentation could be done in the current pandemic environment.
Q: I understand this is your first year as director of choral music at FPU. Essentially, you started a new job and were told, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to need to take this longstanding and beloved annual tradition and transform it into a digital production.” What was that like for you?
A: You’ve summarized the situation well. After my initial reaction of “Oh no, what do I do now!” I asked my new FPU faculty and staff colleagues for help and began looking for a technical director. Everyone I approached at FPU was quick to assist and the search for a technical director led to Vince Keenan, husband of FPU music faculty member Christine Keenan and Technical Director of the Paul Shaghoain Concert Hall at the Clovis Performing Arts Center. After enlisting all of the necessary personnel—student musicians and ensemble directors, scripture readers and staff assistants, technical gurus and marketing specialists—we began the grand adventure!
Q: For those who haven’t been to a live “Festival” in previous years, tell us a little about the format. Which FPU ensembles are included?
A: Our decades-long Festival tradition was initiated by former FPU choral director, Roy Klassen. While meeting Roy at an outdoor event earlier this fall, he confirmed that he based his programs on the century old “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” Christmas Eve worship service originating from King’s College Cambridge, England. The basic format includes a prescribed set of scripture readings which are complemented by musical selections (‘carols’) that are selected by the music director to highlight the themes of the readings.
My understanding is that FPU’s “A Festival of Lessons and Carols” began with choral ensembles and organ, and has grown to include our handbell, brass, and Contemporary Christian worship ensembles in recent years. This year, since we didn’t have the physical space restrictions of a live performance, we added two additional ensembles from the Music Department — Symphonic Band and Chamber Winds.
Q: I noticed that there is some specific terminology used — for example, a “Bidding Prayer” is introduced. Can you elaborate?
A: The Bidding Prayer is the ‘Opening Prayer’ which calls worshipers to focus their attention on the “God of mystery and light” near the beginning of the service. Other prayers, such as the “Lord’s Prayer” and the “Closing Prayer and Blessing,” are also voiced during the gathering.
Q: It boggles the mind that you can conduct a choir in which each singer is in a separate location. Walk us through how that works logistically. Did you ever rehearse in the same room, or was everything done through Zoom? I’m guessing that when recording the concert, each singer laid down individual tracks to recorded accompaniment. Could they ever hear the other singers, or was it more like singing a solo?
A: We never sang in the same room or heard each other sing in person throughout the whole recording project. In fact, most of us did not meet each other in person until after all of the video was completed.
The rehearsal process, along with learning to use new technology in effective ways, were among our biggest challenges. All group rehearsals were done on Zoom with each choir member muted because of time lag issues. Likewise, I never heard the full ensemble until each vocalist had submitted their final video recordings and Vince’s mixing of the ensemble began.
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Group Zoom rehearsals were the place where we shaped the overall concept of each piece. Then individual singers recorded themselves singing a song which I, in turn, critiqued and gave feedback on. This refining process of group rehearsal and multiple individual audio recording critiques was followed for each choral piece on the video.
After reaching a certain level of individual performance proficiency, each singer then video-recorded themselves singing to ‘click track’ (a video which included pianist Matt Horton playing and me conducting). These individual performance videos were then uploaded so that Vince Keenan could begin the video and audio syncing and mixing process. After producing an initial mix which Vince shared with me, we then began the conductor/audio engineer refining process. Eventually, we would finish one piece, and then move on to the next.
Once all of the ensemble videos were completed, Vince then assembled the musical videos, video recordings of spoken readings, text, and graphics into the final product that is now online. It was quite a painstaking process.
Q: An important part of choral music is the blending of the sound and the cohesion of the singers. As a choral conductor, how did you accomplish this in the digital world?
A: Since all of our work was done remotely without singers hearing each other, I used Zoom rehearsals and my final conducting video to create an environment generally conducive to vocal blend and ensemble cohesion and provided more individualized feedback and instruction to vocalists based on each singer’s audio recordings.
Q: One of my favorite selections is when the Women’s Chorale sings “I Wonder as I Wander,” featuring Kaycee Bauer as soloist. What can you tell me about the song and the soloist?
A: This lovely Appalachian Carol was collected by American composer and singer John Jacob Niles. J.J. Niles and Lewis Henry Horton adapted and arranged this treble version of the carol. I chose this piece because of its haunting melody and the stark, lonely feeling expressed by the lyrics. It seemed to be a good transition between the first scripture lesson (which highlights the fall of humankind from the life of Paradise) and the second lesson (which promises future blessing).
When it became evident that it would be difficult to make a conductor click track for this song (due to rubato tempi), I came up with the idea of having a vocal soloist sing it with an accompanist (as an art song performance) and having the women’s ensemble follow the soloist by watching, and breathing with, her. Soprano Kaycee Bauer, a FPU Music Education major from the Hanford area, was the obvious choice for this task. She has a gorgeous voice and is very expressive. I think the final video turned out rather well.
Q: Another moment I found inspiring: Edwardo Cazares, one of the members of the Concert Choir and an English major from Dinuba, reaches a point in “When Jesus Left His Father’s Throne” (arranged by Fresno Pacific’s Walter Saul) when the music shifts into a more upbeat tempo. At that point Edwardo reaches up to his “man bun” and lets down his hair with a wide smile on his face. It really seems like a moment of joy. What can you tell me about this song?
A: One of the traditions that has developed at King’s College Cambridge over the last few decades is that of commissioning a new composition for each annual service. I thought it might be good to extend this tradition to FPU’s Lessons and Carols.
Emeritus faculty Walter Saul lives about a block away from me here in Fresno and we have discovered a mutual love for riding bicycles and talking about our families, careers, music, etc. Early this fall I suggested the idea of a Lessons and Carols commission to Walter and he agreed to it. We settled on Ralph Vaughan William’s hymn tune KINGSFOLD along with James Montgomery’s poem and Walter crafted this wonderful arrangement.
At the first reading of the piece, our FPU music students who had studied music theory and arranging with Walter instantly recognized it as being in ‘his compositional voice’. I was also delighted that Walter repeated the last verse of the text since it employs the word ‘hosanna’—which also happens to be the name of my first granddaughter who had recently been born at about the same time as the genesis of this piece.
Edwardo’s spontaneous gesture fittingly expresses our choir’s joyous response to the mood change in the music and the textual content of the hymn (Christ’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem), as well as my personal jubilation over the serendipitous use of ‘Hosanna’ in the piece.
Q: We should also give a shout-out to the instrumental ensembles, directed by Patricia Cota, Christine Keenan, Melita Mudri-Zubacz, Christa Pehl Evans, and Nathan Sobieralski. What can you tell us about some of the technical and musical challenges they faced for this concert?
A: I am so thankful for how my music colleagues ‘stepped up’ to the similar technical and musical challenges that we all faced…most of us for the first time. They learned new ways to rehearse and learn music with the help of such technological tools as Zoom, Smart Music, Acapella, and My Choral Coach. Many additional hours were spent preparing and reviewing individual student recordings. The handbell choir even learned a new playing technique which involved having four bells in hand at all times for this project.
My colleagues and our students did this with open minds, kind and compassionate hearts, and musical excellence as their goal. Though I haven’t met most of them in person yet, I sense that this characterizes who they are as people and am very proud of them and pleased to be in their ranks.
Q: You’ve come to Fresno from Greenville University in Illinois, a private Christian university. What has the transition been like for you? What do you hope to accomplish with the FPU program?
A: In terms of institutional goals, Fresno Pacific University is very similar to Greenville University. Both embrace education in the liberal arts and sciences, as well as professional studies, within the context of a loving faith community. Of course, institutional policies and procedures are somewhat unique to individual universities and require some new learning. However, the biggest challenges for me have been moving far away from family to a quite different setting—from a small, rural Midwestern town to a more diverse and densely populated urban setting—and doing that during a pandemic. I have been pleasantly surprised, though, to find people here to be quite friendly and helpful, both at the university and in my neighborhood.
In general, I would like to grow the size of FPU’s choral program and the diversity of repertoire that we sing, while maintaining our strong focus on historical and excellent choral music. I would also like to encourage more cultural diversity and an increased emphasis on healthy community within our choirs. Finally, I view the spiritual heritage, academic integrity, and artistic ethos at FPU as important foundations upon which we should continue to build the choral program.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: Thank you for including FPU and our festival in your blog. I look forward to meeting you in person someday!