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What Makes A Christmas Song with Dr. Michael Culloton

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Whether you're a fan or not, the festive spirit of Christmas music is undeniable. In our latest Main Street episode, we delve into the essence of what makes a song a true Christmas classic. Join us as we explore this captivating topic with Dr. Michael Culloton, an esteemed associate professor of music at Concordia College. With his extensive expertise as the director of choral activities, conductor of The Concordia Choir, and holder of the Paul J. and Eleanor Christiansen Chair of Choral Music, Dr. Culloton offers unique insights into the world of Christmas melodies.

When it’s happening: 

The big Concordia Christmas concert is happening in Moorhead, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There will also be a one-hour video version available later. All details are at ConcordiaChristmas.com.

What makes a song a “Christmas” song?

Of course in the Christian background that season is of Christ's birth. In the secular time we've got the music of Santa Claus, winter, special reindeer with fun, you know, noses. Then, of course, holiday traditions from all around the world come into play at the same time of the year. We think the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa that our children have been learning more and more about for the last - oh, more than a decade, I suspect - in the schools. So you know I think what makes a song a Christmas song? Somewhere there's a deep connection. You know we've known for a long time that music connects in the brain at a level that befuddles doctors and scientists when they are dealing with patients who suffer from memory loss, for example. But there's such connections to music that oftentimes, and in a lot of larger communities, you'll find that there are choirs for memory care patients and though they may not remember their family members names, they remember the words of music that they grew up listening to.

What value does songs without lyrics bring to the season?

When there are not words that tie us to a specific story, or even perhaps a particular memory, orchestral music allows us instead to think what we want to think about the music. There's not necessarily a prescription for it. You know, every year we do an orchestral prelude at the Christmas concerts at Concordia and it's really to kind of set the mood, if you will, for the concert that is to come. And almost to gather the listeners into a Zen place of being one with the audience as we enter into this Christmas season in the Christmas concert - the Christmas journey. But what I love about orchestral music is it can mean something different to me every time I listen to it and words aren't in the way to necessarily guide me to a specific path…There's no prescribed lyric or anything like that. So I think orchestral music is a very important part of our season together. And, of course, symphony orchestras all around the world celebrating the season with medleys of familiar tunes, just without the lyrics.

The significance of this region and its relationship to choral music?

Yeah, it's really a strong connection here. Back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, a man named F. Melius Christiansen came from Norway to study music in Minnesota and he settled at St. Olaf College where for many years he conducted the St. Olaf Choir. Now, what he brought to America was a European-based choral approach and, specifically, kind of a Norwegian and Germanic approach to choral music making. Soprano, alto, tenor, bass, acapella - this was primarily music sung without piano or without instruments…introducing this acapella choral style in a new way to a new area. Then it was all of the students of all of these people that have come through and led these collegiate programs…The traditions are so long-standing, in a way you know it's a lot like Christmas music. This music gets in the bones and it becomes a part of our being.

So yeah, choral country up here - this is the choral belt. There are certainly other great choral traditions around America, but this one is deeply rooted into the fabric of the music-making of the singers throughout the Midwest. Really, it's because of good teaching, strong traditions, the legacy of these great schools…that are kind of part of the liberal arts Lutheran tradition in our region. They all celebrate Christmas with huge beloved Christmas concerts, so it's kind of like the combination of the Lutheran choral liberal arts tradition - by the way you don't have to be Lutheran to sing in the Lutheran liberal arts tradition, but that's really the tradition from which we are anchored - and we combine that with the sacred Christmas tradition, and we all do these Christmas concerts that are beloved, well-known, aired on public television all around the country, and supported by people all around the country. So yeah, two very special traditions kind of coming together at this time of the year, that sacred music.

What does “singing on your feet” mean at Concordia’s Christmas concert?

It's amazing. That's the third verse of Silent Night. That was arranged by my predecessor, René Clausen…it's not a silent thing; It's the rolled cymbal going on there…That's one of our two traditional pieces on the program. Right before verse three, everybody in the audience stands up. It says in the program, “Please stand as you are able.” And they've been singing with us for verse one and two, but they all know what's to come in that big slowdown; in that big, dramatic, climactic moment of the music. It always gives me goosebumps. There are years where I'm too moved to even sing along with the people and I find myself inhaling through my nose to dry the tear ducts a little bit, you know.

So it's really quite special. There's even something about from the front of the room where I'm at and I'm looking out at the audience to see this - you know, it's almost like a sporting event where they do the wave and you see the people standing in kind of a staggered way where the people up front, they know it's time to stand, by golly, we're going to lead the way. They stand up and then almost in a wave like fashion it goes all the way back and up the bleachers, and people are standing up there and they're standing for one reason - and that is to join together in a community of singing of this piece, which I think is probably maybe the definitive Christmas carol. I mean, it brings us to that most intimate moment in the Christmas narrative and there are 2000 people standing to join that community of song together…I would think in many cases, they get emotional singing that too, and feel the goosebumps…

New this year:

Fun for us this year. We have two pieces that'll be sung for the choir and the orchestra and the audience, actually, that are brand new arrangements done by 2023 graduates of Concordia; Jared Campbell and Carmen Geiger-Schutz, two brand new Concordia Cabra alumni. This summer I talked to them both and asked them if they would like to orchestrate a piece for the Christmas concert so both of them have arranged a piece of music. Jared Campbell arranged the processional hymn and Carmen did a new arrangement of Joy to the World that the audience will join with us on singing as the choirs are all leaving the space. So I really love getting our students involved like that. This will be kind of a brand new first time, to my knowledge, that we've had student compositions for the choir and the orchestra at the Christmas concert, but they're talented and why shouldn't we do that?

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Ashley Thornberg

With Thanksgiving officially in the rearview mirror, it is full-on holiday music season. Love it or hate it, Christmas music is everywhere that you go. But have you ever asked yourself what makes a song a Christmas song? Turns out there's more to it than just saying Santa or Jesus. We are visiting now with Dr. Michael Culloton. He is an associate professor of music at Concordia College, where he is also the director of choral activities among other musical responsibilities. Dr. Culloton, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Oh, it's great to be with you and Christmas music, yes. You know what, I spend a lot of time with Christmas music in June. So even with Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, I've learned in my job at Concordia it's a year-round adventure, because we got to plan this Christmas concert.

Ashley Thornberg

You have the big Christmas concert coming up on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Moorhead and you can get details at ConcordiaCollege.edu and I'm guessing you're serious that planning for the Christmas concert starts in June?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Oh, absolutely.

Ashley Thornberg

Or maybe December 26th.

Dr. Michael Culloton

That's what it is. It's kind of when I finish up the Christmas concerts at Concordia, then we still have like weeks to go until Christmas time and so I'm hearing Christmas music, I'm watching specials on television, and really I'm starting to plan the next Christmas concert in the days, nay minutes, after the Christmas concert wraps up. Really a lot of the planning is March and April and May so that I can meet with our mural designer in June. So he's drawing Christmas June and July, and then, yeah, we put this together all throughout the fall at Concordia. Then it hits December and then repeat that cycle all over again. So lots of fun.

Ashley Thornberg

And you still love Christmas music?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Oh, I love Christmas music. You know, there was a time back in 2000, I was just finishing my master's degree at the University of Arizona in Tucson. So it's July, it's Tucson, and one of the greatest gigs of my life was singing background vocals on a Linda Ronstadt Christmas CD. So we would record Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, leave the studio, get into the Chrysler Sebring convertible…

Ashley Thornberg

And it's 107 degrees in the desert.

Dr. Michael Culloton

So I have lived with Christmas music calendar-round, year-round, for many, many years. That was just me dropping Linda Ronstadt's name right there. I'll try not to drop too many names, but that was a real pleasure actually recording a wide variety of Christmas music In fact, what I remember about that Christmas CD was it was so eclectic. It had things that we would know very well: O Come, O Come Emmanuel. It had a Renaissance Spanish piece called O Magnum Mysterium. And then it had a jazz group from LA coming in on tracks like Joni Mitchell's River. And so it talked about eclectic and wondering what makes Christmas music Christmas music. I think Linda Ronstadt was trying to figure that out too and she was kind of doing a lot of the music that she loved from all sorts of different aspects of her life onto one CD.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, what to you makes a song a Christmas song?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Oh well, for me you hinted at the two big ones of course coming into the show today.

Ashley Thornberg

We've got religion and commercialism.

Dr. Michael Culloton

There's no connection between those two ever. But yes it's the songs of the season. Of course in the Christian background that season is of Christ's birth. In the secular time we've got the music of Santa Claus, winter, special reindeer with fun, you know, noses. Then, of course, holiday traditions from all around the world come into play at the same time of the year. We think the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa that our children have been learning more and more about for the last - oh, more than a decade, I suspect - in the schools. So you know I think what makes a song a Christmas song? Somewhere there's a deep connection. You know we've known for a long time that music connects in the brain at a level that befuddles doctors and scientists when they are dealing with patients who suffer from memory loss, for example. But there's such connections to music that oftentimes, and in a lot of larger communities, you'll find that there are choirs for memory care patients and though they may not remember their family members names, they remember the words of music that they grew up listening to.

Ashley Thornberg

I can sing I've Got the Joy Joy Joy Joy (Down in My Heart) in Spanish and I don't speak Spanish. So yeah, what is going on there? I don't know.

Dr. Michael Culloton

I can match you. We're doing Alegría this year with the Concordia Choir at the Christmas concert and, you know, I think all of our students kind of say, you know deep down I know this song. I know this song from somewhere.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah.

Dr. Michael Culloton

But I think the other fun thing…in this part of the country is that along with religion, and along with Santa Claus, we have the weather that for some reason resonates with us. Like people sing Frosty the Snowman down in Tucson, Arizona. I know that.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, yeah.

Dr. Michael Culloton

But like, they've never seen a snowman or made a snowman. But our memories can be tied to going out and making the snowman and trying to make it look like Frosty the Snowman. So, I mean, in so many ways in our lives we resonate with these carols because of experience with them. Whether it's singing them in the Sunday school choir, or your elementary school choir performance, or hearing them on the radio stations all throughout the holiday season. Do we remember the first time we heard I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus? I don't remember the first time, but I know I've heard that song a ton.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, let's hear it right now by the Jackson 5.

All right, how old were you when you realized that Santa Claus was just your dad?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Yeah, I remember that talk. You know, it was only the second most awkward talk that I ever remember my parents sitting me down for…I have a twin brother and we were in the situation where we had a younger sibling, so this was very privileged information which was also like the other conversation. Privileged information.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, right. Do not share.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Do not share.

Ashley Thornberg

You will not translate that properly.

Dr. Michael Culloton

You know I'm gonna say like third or fourth grade, if I remember right. Third or fourth grade and then you start connecting all sorts of other dots about, oh, and you left us dollars for our teeth.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, right, there's that.

Dr. Michael Culloton

All of those things.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Oh, yeah.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, my kid busted me. She saw the alarm on my phone to put money under the pillow. But let's talk about that song, obviously a very secular song. Yep. First of all, just Michael Jackson was - I mean rest in peace - he was a child in the Jackson 5 and just the ability to carry a song like that - as someone who is directing and coaching young performers, how do you approach talent and try to get them to have this emotion when it's something that they maybe are not gonna understand.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Yeah, it's a little bit like theater, I suppose, in that you really have to start with, “so what's the character we're going for?” and Michael Jackson, in that particular clip, he was a storyteller and really having to tell the story. Whether you're in it to win it or not, really getting behind the words and telling the story and trying to connect with just the idea that people for decades of their lives have resonated with that tune, and trying to bring them along with that story. And, frankly, in a case like that song, the absurdity of the whole situation and kind of the naivete of the situation of you did not see your daddy kissing your mommy at that moment, you saw mommy kissing Santa Claus, and oh the horror. But oh, but wait, if she could be with anybody except my dad maybe Santa would be a great person.

Ashley Thornberg

You know, that's some good solid child reasoning. I'm actually surprised I haven't thought that.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Well, yeah, and so, you know, finding the fun character about these kinds of pieces. There's another song that really captures the imagination. I've done it many times over the years at little family holiday concerts that I've led at public libraries where it was music for all ages. Kind of the vision of it's a marshmallow world in the winter. This was a song I came across because of the great treasure that sits on our piano at home almost year-round - and I even brought it into the studio today as you see - the Reader's Digest Christmas Songbook. As I'm paging through the songbook years and years ago for the first time, I had been given this as a gift from a family friend, and I came across this song called It's a Marshmallow World and I thought, “Oh this this is such a fun piece of music.” It was new to me, but I'll tell you what happened was now I hear it on advertising all throughout the holiday season. I heard it on a Christmas commercial this past weekend.

Ashley Thornberg

All right, well let's hear it right now by none other than Dean Martin.

Excerpt from It's a Marshmallow World

Those are marshmallow clouds being friendly

In the arms of the evergreen trees

And the sun is red, like a pumpkin head

It's shining so your nose won't freeze

Oh, the world is your snowball, see how it grows

That's how it goes, whenever it snows

The world is your snowball just for a song

Get out and roll it along

Ashley Thornberg

That's a version of It's a Marshmallow World performed by Dean Martin. We are visiting today with Concordia's Dr. Michael Culloton about what makes music Christmas music and I want to talk about this sort of crooner approach because, oh man, you can just hear the brandy swirling in the snifter when he is singing, right?

Dr. Michael Culloton

You can see the coat he's wearing, and yeah, you can just come but that Dean Martin what a legendary crooner, you know. And the very first entrance, “It's a marshmallow,” that little slide up into it - you know, I just sound drunk when I do that - and Dean Martin, you know this is take five probably, at least on that recording. But what I love about songs like Marshmallow World and some of these very secular Christmas season pieces it's just the imagery that comes over. I think it's one of the reasons we connect with the pieces, because when he's saying “when the snow comes to cover the ground” you know, here we sit waiting for that. We're, like, anticipating the fact that oh sometime it's gonna snow.

Now I'm always okay if it's after the Concordia Christmas concerts. I don't need snow to define my experiences this early in December and November, but we see when the snow comes to cover the ground on the lyric sheet and I go “oh yeah it's time for play, it's a whipped cream day” and I remember as a kid we'd go out and toss the whipped cream at each other out in the front yard there in the snowfall building our forts and getting our sleds out. And this whole song just harkens back to those memories that we all have of growing up at the Christmas season; the world is your snowball, see how it grows. Sometimes when I'm not ready for the snow to be in the yard I think I'm just gonna go make a bunch of big snowballs and basically pick up the snow in the yard anyway…That's such an amazing line, “the world is your snowball, see how it grows,” yeah like really just transports you back into that childhood mentality of anything is possible and it's a yum-yummy world made for sweethearts. That little sense of romance that could be in the air at that same time.And now you're remembering those times you're out ice skating with hot chocolate and…it really taps into those core memories - that now I think about core memories like that Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out. Those fun things that we know we don't want to let go of in our subconscious.

So this song triggers a lot of those for me - it's been a favorite of mine for a long time. I know that when you sing it for young people they might not even have been in that place long enough where they will connect with these words, but it's kind of for the parents in the room. At that moment the imagery is fun for the students and for the children, but for the parents they're relating on a whole different level. I think that's true with a lot of these types of pieces. Like I saw mama kissing Santa Claus. Parents will connect at a high level, children at a fun low level is that unique to Christmas music. oh no and nor to music in general right? We can go see a movie with mature themes at one level, but also the same themes at a level that children can just enjoy for the storytelling that it represents. So I don't think it's unique to music, but I think that music helps us connect the synapses in the brain and relate the stories in a more deep meaningful manner

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, I want to talk to you a little bit about the difference between a song and a composition. Songs have words and - correct me if I'm wrong here - but compositions usually don't. Is that right?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Correct. Yep, songs lyrics…I think about orchestral music, you know, no lyrics, but they can still tell stories.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, yeah, I want to talk to you about how…you work with choir students, but you also are working with songs that are instrumental. So from the emotional standpoint, I mean, you talked about getting this kid to pretend to actually think they're seeing mom kissing Santa Claus and what that would mean, but when there aren't words to connect to that, what is your process for bringing out that emotion?

Dr. Michael Culloton

You know, when there are not words that tie us to a specific story, or even perhaps a particular memory, orchestral music allows us instead to think what we want to think about the music. There's not necessarily a prescription for it. You know, every year we do an orchestral prelude at the Christmas concerts at Concordia and it's really to kind of set the mood, if you will, for the concert that is to come. And almost to gather the listeners into a Zen place of being one with the audience as we enter into this Christmas season in the Christmas concert - the Christmas journey. But what I love about orchestral music is it can mean something different to me every time I listen to it and words aren't in the way to necessarily guide me to a specific path.

Our orchestral prelude this year at the concert is from Edward Elgar's beautiful Enigma Variations. It's called “Nimrod,” from the Enigma Variations that feels like a word I'll use at Christmas. Not necessarily a Christmas tune -by necessarily I mean in any way - but the music is so evocative, and it's almost like it halts the time for that three-and-a-half minutes or so. It just halts and it starts very gentle. Listeners can kind of start to find a focus, and they can go into whatever place they want to go to as they think about the concert to come: The season that we're celebrating, what their surroundings - the beautiful mural in front of them, the lights coming down. There are other orchestral classics that are tied to the Christmas season. Perhaps the most famous is the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Ballet Suite, and you hear some of those movements and you are just immediately transported back to that seat that you were in watching the ballet, and maybe it's the only ballet you've ever seen in your life, but you see the children dancing around the tree and the Nutcracker coming to life and there are no words to guide that story, but instead a dance ballet presentation to help move it along. I love orchestral music…For a choir guy, I really connect a lot with the story behind orchestral music, but I think what I love most about it is that it can mean something different every time I listen to it and there's no prescribed lyric or anything like that. So I think orchestral music is a very important part of our season together. And, of course, symphony orchestras all around the world celebrating the season with medleys of familiar tunes, just without the lyrics.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with Dr. Michael Culloton. He is the Paul J. and Eleanor Christansen Chair of Choral Music at Concordia College. The upcoming famous Concordia Christmas concert is Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. There's also going to be a video version available online later. You can go to ConcordiaChristmas.com for more details. Michael, I just called you the Chair of Choral Music. I've heard this part of the country referred to as the choral belt. Yeah, can you talk to us a little bit about the significance of this region and its relationship to choral music?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Yeah, it's really a strong connection here. Back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, a man named F. Melius Christiansen came from Norway to study music in Minnesota and he settled at St. Olaf College where for many years he conducted the St. Olaf Choir. Now, what he brought to America was a European-based choral approach and, specifically, kind of a Norwegian and Germanic approach to choral music making. Soprano, alto, tenor, bass, acapella - this was primarily music sung without piano or without instruments. You know, then it's just kind of like the seeds were sown. The students of F. Melius Christiansen went on to lead major programs; his two sons, Olaf Christiansen and Paul J. Christiansen, also became very famous in Minnesota. Olaf Christiansen conducted at St. Olaf College after his father F. Melius retired, and Paul J. Christiansen came to Concordia College and conducted the Concordia Choir for 50 years. So both Olaf Christiansen and Paul J. Christiansen continue to have their music students go out, become teachers at the high school level, collegiate levels: The folks who followed in their footsteps, Ken Jennings at St. Olaf, and René Clausen, my predecessor at Concordia College. Renee retired after 34 years of teaching the Concordia Choir, so for the last now 88 years, there have only been three of us who have conducted the Concordia Choir. So I like to say that Paul J. conducted for 50 years, Renee conducted for 34 years, this is my fourth year - or another way to look at it is we average 29 years apiece of leadership for this wonderful organization - but I think that it's because of F. Melius Christiansen…introducing this acapella choral style in a new way to a new area.

Then it was all of the students of all of these people that have come through and led these collegiate programs…Weston Noble taught at Luther College for 57 years. The traditions are so long-standing, in a way you know it's a lot like Christmas music. This music gets in the bones and it becomes a part of our being. At homecoming we have hundreds of people come up and sing our final we sing Beautiful Savior to end our concert programs every concert and at homecoming it's no surprise we have hundreds of people come and sing with us on this stage for that particular piece. So yeah, choral country up here - this is the choral belt. There are certainly other great choral traditions around America, but this one is deeply rooted into the fabric of the music-making of the singers throughout the Midwest. Really, it's because of good teaching, strong traditions, the legacy of these great schools, and, not surprisingly, all of the schools you know that I've mentioned that are kind of part of the liberal arts Lutheran tradition in our region. They all celebrate Christmas with huge beloved Christmas concerts, so it's kind of like the combination of the Lutheran choral liberal arts tradition - by the way you don't have to be Lutheran to sing in the Lutheran liberal arts tradition, but that's really the tradition from which we are anchored - and we combine that with the sacred Christmas tradition, and we all do these Christmas concerts that are beloved, well-known, aired on public television all around the country, and supported by people all around the country. So yeah, two very special traditions kind of coming together at this time of the year, that sacred music.

Ashley Thornberg

Michael, we spent the first half of the show talking a little bit more about the secular traditions of Christmas. But of course, this is a celebration for Christians around the world, the birth of Christ. And there is a great deal of, as you might expect, religious music associated with that. Let's talk about what makes a song Christmas-y from the perspective of the sacred.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Well, certainly the pieces that we come to know the most from the sacred side of things now are going to put us kind of in that place in the manger. I think about Away In A Manger. We're going to be zoomed into the story here for the birth of Jesus, the babe in the manger. So now we enter into a realm of songs that many churchgoing singers or Christmas music lovers will connect to, because they've been singing since they were in their Sunday school choirs and doing the cute Sunday school shows. And they've been singing Away In A Manger and Silent Night and Joy To The World. And now we're into these carols. You hear the caroling group singing all throughout the season…Like the Moorhead Spud caroling group around town, I think they have like 40 gigs or something.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, yeah. And they wear those costumes.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Oh, the costumes are great. And, you know, they're going to be singing a lot of those types of songs that tell the specific story of the birth of Christ. And so for a lot of people, of course, there's the deep religious connection to these pieces. But I find that even those who don't participate on a regular basis in a church service, they still resonate with some of these pieces deeply and as deeply, perhaps, as anything that they would resonate with. I mean, if they hear Silent Night being sung, whether it be with a choir of 300 singers and a big orchestra or whether it be one person playing with the guitar. You know, it was originally thought that it was written for one singer and a guitar. And what a beautifully intimate feeling that is for Silent Night. Sometimes, of course, when we sing it at the Concordia Christmas concerts, there's not a whole lot of “silent” in it when you've got 300 people doing a rousing and moving version of it with 2000 people singing along. But it tends to be one of those moments in our concert where I feel the most connection to the audience members because they are singing from their feet…where their whole body is engaged in the singing of this piece. So it's certainly tied to the imagery of the season, even the story of the angel Gabriel from heaven came.

And we hear about when Mary first found out that she was going to give birth to the Son of God. And so there's lots of wonderful, beautiful imagery throughout all of those Christmas carols that connect on a very deep level. But one of the things that I love doing with the Concordia Christmas concert is finding the pillars of the story we're going to tell. Ours is the narrative of the birth of Christ. And so we have these narratives of the angels and the shepherds. And so we're going to certainly get your Hark the Herald Angels Sing type of a piece into the Christmas concert, as we do this year. We have the concert pieces where you're talking about the shepherds or, as I mentioned, the babe in the manger, or the friendly beasts who gather around and witness the birth of Christ. There are just so many pieces that I think people have resonated with for so long because they've sung them or they've heard them for so many years.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, let's take a listen to the 2016 version of Concordia Christmas Concert's version of Silent Night. Michael, you used a great phrase called “singing from your feet.” Walk us through what it feels like to be in that room.

Dr. Michael Culloton

It's amazing. That's the third verse of Silent Night. That was arranged by my predecessor, René Clausen. There was a Christmas concert one year called Son of God, Loves Pure Light. And that's why right before that lyric or during that lyric there's a big slowdown. And you know, it's not a silent thing; It's the rolled cymbal going on there. But it really drew out that text of the theme and what I love about that moment every year…That's one of our two traditional pieces on that program. It’s right before verse three, everybody in the audience stands up. It says in the program, “Please stand as you are able.” And they've been singing with us for verse one and two, but they all know what's to come in that big slowdown; in that big, dramatic, climactic moment of the music. It always gives me goosebumps. There are years where I'm too moved to even sing along with the people and I find myself inhaling through my nose to dry the tear ducts a little bit, you know.

There was a particularly wonderful moment a couple of years ago where it was René's last Christmas concert. Traditionally this piece has been conducted by the orchestra conductor at our concerts because René and I would be out in the aisles conducting our choirs in a fun little set of carols, but we were away from the stage. Then Silent Night was where we would process the choirs back up. Then by verse three, everybody was up there and then the audience stands up. It's this moment I get goosebumps…just thinking about it. And it was René's last Christmas concert in 2019. My colleague, Kevin Sütterlin - totally classy move - he insisted that René come back up to the podium and conduct that one last time. And it was - I find myself inhaling again through that because it was not lost on the audience at Orchestra Hall what the significance was of that. They knew that was his last Christmas concert and he was being celebrated all night long. In fact, it was the first time I think that he ever took a bow after Christmas concerts… in 2019. But to see everybody stand up and you can hear it…that was a live recording and the choirs were miked. But when you're in the room, you can feel that there are now 2000 people singing, like I said, singing from their feet and just going full throttle. Every soprano alumni who's out in the audience is joining the sopranos on the desk and so you get to this huge, loud, dramatic chord in the soprano.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, my gosh.

Dr. Michael Culloton

You know, we would love a new concert hall at Concordia one of these years. I think one of the ways we'll do it is if everybody sings Silent Night loud enough on verse three, we could break it once and for all. So it's really quite special. There's even something about from the front of the room where I'm at and I'm looking out at the audience to see this - you know, it's almost like a sporting event where they do the wave and you see the people standing in kind of a staggered way where the people up front, they know it's time to stand, by golly, we're going to lead the way. They stand up and then almost in a wave like fashion it goes all the way back and up the bleachers, and people are standing up there and they're standing for one reason - and that is to join together in a community of singing of this piece, which I think is probably maybe the definitive Christmas carol. I mean, it brings us to that most intimate moment in the Christmas narrative and there are 2000 people standing to join that community of song together…I would think in many cases, they get emotional singing that too, and feel the goosebumps…

This reminds me very much that it's one of the things I try to do at the Christmas concert and that we've tried to do for decades. You know, this year's concert's the 97th annual. And so it works on many levels for our audience members, because I think that they love that they can come, they see the visual art of the mural that Paul Johnson does beautifully every year, but they get to sing with us. We don't just make them sit in the seats for an hour-and-a-half, but they get to stand with us at pivotal moments in the concert…As…the Christmas banners are processing, they're standing and singing with us on the processional hymn and carol. They're standing with us on the recessional as the choirs are leaving, and surrounding them for what I've always called the benediction moment - where we sing one or two more pieces kind of surrounding the audience to bring the concert to more of a gentle conclusion…That's a very special moment. I think it harkens back too to what we were talking about earlier with that Lutheran liberal arts tradition, the church relationship of the college and our ability to unabashedly stand and sing songs of the season from the religious aspect of it and it's a great joy. It's one of the most rewarding corners of my work right now at Concordia College and throughout the community. And it's a really great honor to be able to design a concert that I hope will mean a lot to people because they connect with the story and they connect with the music.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with Dr. Michael Culloton, the Director of Choral activities at Concordia College. Michael, you were talking about that version of Silent Night being arranged by René Clausen, and then a different conductor would have a slightly different take on a song. What do you think most people don't understand about what directors and conductors bring to a piece of music?

Dr. Michael Culloton

I'll tell you, this is kind of fun. I have family members who have asked me before, “Why do they need you?” And honestly, the truth is by the time we get to a concert, I hope that I'm reminding people of the things that we've been learning for the last two months as we prepare for this concert. So in a concert situation, I don't always feel like I have to have the largest, grandest gesture to tell them how to sing it. We've talked for two months on how do we want to present this piece of music? So the fun thing for me, the thing that I enjoy the most about being a choral conductor, I love the performances. Don't get me wrong. I love that we can share the product that we've been working on, but for me, the best part about it is the rehearsals that we do. The Concordia Choir is in rehearsal every day, Monday through Friday, from 4:30 to 6 o'clock. The students…grant me the ability to work with them for 90 minutes a day. They're just committed to the art and they know that deep down they need to be a part of the choir - all of the singers and all of the players and instrumentalists do that with us at Concordia. But for 90 minutes a day, we get to craft what we're eventually going to share with an audience. And I love the teaching part of that a great deal. So for different conductors, we might find different interpretations. We might do different speeds or tempi of a piece of music. We might find different high points to draw out or cute little nuances that bring a little sparkle to a bit of text here or there throughout the piece of music. And the truth that I always think, and I like to tell my students this, is it's particularly enjoyable if you never do one piece of music identically every single time you do it. You try and find, tonight I'm going to bring out this or we're going to do it a little bit slower here.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. Let's talk about that because you're telling the story of the birth of Christ, which I mean, don't they call this the oldest story ever?

Dr. Michael Culloton

The greatest story ever told. Okay, sorry. But it is one of the oldest.

Ashley Thornberg

It's more or less 2023 years old, right? So how do you, what's your process for the tradition, but also let's not just do the same concert every year.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Right. So I always love to make sure that first and foremost, we have pieces on the program that are going to connect with the audience at one level emotionally - that will hearken them back to when they were singing in the choirs or when they had sung a piece.Then I'm also looking through for music that will be new to our listeners, that might introduce them to new composers or new styles of music.

So it's been fun for us this year. We have two pieces that'll be sung for the choir and the orchestra and the audience, actually, that are brand new arrangements done by 2023 graduates of Concordia; Jared Campbell and Carmen Geiger-Schutz, two brand new Concordia Cabra alumni. This summer I talked to them both and asked them if they would like to orchestrate a piece for the Christmas concert so both of them have arranged a piece of music. Jared Campbell arranged the processional hymn and Carmen did a new arrangement of Joy to the World that the audience will join with us on singing as the choirs are all leaving the space. So I really love getting our students involved like that. This will be kind of a brand new first time, to my knowledge, that we've had student compositions for the choir and the orchestra at the Christmas concert, but they're talented and why shouldn't we do that? So it's a balance. But I'm also thinking, well, we can't stay in a slow tempo for too long. We've got to make sure we've got some up tempo. Oh yeah, the room is dark. You know, the lighting is interesting, but if you stay at slow tempo for 20 minutes, you're going to hear some light snoring from the bleachers.

Ashley Thornberg

Concordia is like many colleges, a bit of an international experience. You sent along a Spanish language song…

Dr. Michael Culloton

Great. There's a Spanish Christmas carol called Alegría or Carol of Joy. And we have a lovely, fantastic arrangement in our library at Concordia that probably has not been done for decades and decades -my guess is maybe 40 to 50 years. But I did want to make sure that we were introducing an international flavor to the concert, too. We do carols from all around the world, but this Spanish tune really resonated with me right now.

The theme of this year's concert is rejoice and sing. So it's kind of an uplifting and uptempo kind of a concert. And so I thought this would be a perfect concert to do Carol of Joy or Alegría

And the one thing about the arrangement is that it was all in English. So I asked one of my students who studied abroad in Spain last semester to help us find the Spanish translation for the refrain. So every time we get to the refrain, we'll sing the refrain with a Spanish text instead of the English translation of it. So we're kind of mixing the English lyrics with the traditional Spanish refrain for Alegría.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, that's great.

Dr. Michael Culloton

That's fantastic. What I love about that tune is that is centuries old tune. You can find recordings like that one with some more contemporary instrumentation and percussion. There's a wonderful YouTube that my student and I found, he shared it with me actually, of more authentic centuries old instruments and take on the rhythms and that kind of thing. But what's fun for us too, on this particular piece, is we'll have castanets, we'll have finger symbols, triangles, there'll be percussion with it to give it a little bit of that authentic flavor that I think it would be performed as in Spain or in Mexico -if you were to hear it there.So it's a fun opportunity for us. We've done music in the last several years from several different continents, a Nigerian influenced piece last year called Ogo Ni Fun Oluwa. And before that year, another Kenyan inspired piece called Keresimesi Odun De O, with percussion on that one as well. So definitely an important aspect of the Concordia experience is how we can connect with the world. We travel the world both physically and metaphorically through all of the music that we select. And Christmas can be one of those same times of the year where we do that same thing.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you have a favorite?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Oh, Mercy.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, that really made me want to find an Elvis Christmas, or a Sawyer Brown, actually.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Do I have a favorite Christmas tune? Oh man. No, I don't think I do have a favorite. If I were to try and nail down my favorites that would just take me years and years and years. I think the truth is I tend to just love the music that I'm teaching at the moment. And with the students so intensely, the one thing I'll say is I won't program something that I really don't enjoy, that I don't like. There's kind of a made up mathematical equation in my brain. Like, you know, if only 10% of an audience is going to love this piece, we probably shouldn't do that piece of music. So to think about a favorite tune, you know, I love Oh Holy Night. I resonate with that. I love Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and there are such great arrangements of these tunes…Then on the other hand, I love listening to the Linda Ronstadt Christmas CD or the Pentatonix Christmas CD.

You know…people might be surprised how eclectic our collection of music is on the playlists at our house at Christmas time…Dolly Parton has that Christmas tune that my wife puts on repeat over and over and over. And I can't remember the name of it cause it hasn't started just yet this year. But, you know, favorites are hard to come by, but the songs from the Christmas season that I love can be cataloged by the hundreds.

Ashley Thornberg

Dr. Michael Culloton. He is an associate professor of music at Concordia College where he is also the Director of Choral activities and conductor of the Concordia Choir. The big Concordia Christmas concert is happening in Moorhead, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There will also be a one-hour video version available later. All details are at ConcordiaChristmas.com. Michael, thank you so much for your time today.

Dr. Michael Culloton

Oh, it's been my great pleasure.

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