Fall Arts Celebration ends with holiday concert

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Moments from the Fall Arts Celebration holiday concert Dec. 7 at the Fountain Street church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Moments from the Fall Arts Celebration holiday concert Dec. 7 at the Fountain Street church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Claire Fisher

A lecture on astrophysics, a contemporary dance performance, a poetry reading, a faculty concert and a contemporary art exhibition—this years’ Fall Arts Celebration has brought the arts to Grand Valley State University in a variety of traditions, styles and mediums. The celebration came to a close on Dec. 7 with a holiday concert titled “Stille Nacht: A Celebration of Holiday Music from Europe.”

Music and dance department chair Danny Phipps said the Fall Arts Celebration, and particularly the holiday concert, are a gift to the community by showcasing students and faculty and also bringing in talented artists to the area.

“It was a true sort of celebration involving the music department,” Phipps said. “This is the time for the music department to join the university, to give this gift back to the community. What we’re doing with our holiday concerts, is we try to offer a mixture of the great works from the repertoire as well as works that are iconically holiday.”

The concert was held at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids and hosted a packed audience. On the evening’s program were Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” performed by the GVSU University Arts Choral accompanied by an orchestra and a variety of Christmas songs including “Zion’s Walls” by Aaron Copland and “Variations on Jingle Bells” by Mark Hayes performed by the GVSU Varsity Men’s Glee Club.

“This year we decided to do the ‘Magnificat’ because we had decided to do all of these choral works from the 16th, 17th and 18th century,” Phipps said. “These pieces like the Bach ‘Magnificat’ were actually written for church services, part of the church service. You don’t hear the ‘Magnificat’ unless it’s Christmas time. Whereas if you were living in the 1600s or the 1700s, you’d hear it all the time because it’d be part of your church service.”

Affiliate professor Gregory Crowell said the “Magnificat” was one of Bach’s first pieces written when he was hired for a new job as director of city music in Leipzig, Germany. While the words in the piece do not specifically refer to the Christmas story, Crowell said the “Magnificat” tells the story of her anticipation for the arrival of Christ.

“Of course it’s not really about the Christmas story,” Crowell said. “It’s about Mary’s anticipation of what’s going to happen to her. And (Bach) really takes us into the sense of awe coupled with jubilation that she must have felt. It’s a song of praise, and Bach sets this text with a sense of triumph. That it’s not a quiet arrival of the Christ child, it’s triumphant with trumpets blaring.”

Crowell said the piece is a unique song to hear at Christmas because of its difference from the traditional Christmas music that we often hear.

“We’re overcome sometimes with music that is wonderful and tells the Christmas story and is very explicitly melodious, tuneful; it’s easy to get by in the Christmas season without hearing somebody really plunge the depths of this story,” Crowell said. “And that’s what Bach does. It’s a festive piece and an extremely difficult piece, especially for the choir.”

Phipps said this was a good opportunity for the GVSU University Arts Chorale to be able to work on this particular piece and share it with the community.

“For the chorus, they’ve been studying the ‘Magnificat’ for half the semester; it’s like their final exam,” Phipps said. “It is one of the great works in their repertoire. For the choral students, this is an opportunity for them to perform one of the great works of their repertoire with orchestra in front of an audience, at the same time giving back to the community.”

For the choir, Crowell said this piece presented a challenge and he said he thought they handled the challenge well.

“It’s very elaborate music,” Crowell said. “There’s a section in which the voices are sort of drifting up in triplets and overlapping one another and you can hear the lines interweaving. In the first movement, it’s so overcome with this feeling of joy, but it requires a lot of agility on the part of the singers. It was a good challenge for our choir which rose to challenge beautifully. It’s not something that every undergraduate school can undertake. They did a beautiful job.”

In addition to the GVSU University Arts Chorale and the GVSU Varsity Men’s Glee Club, the concert featured GVSU alumni and faculty as soloists, GVSU faculty conductors, GVSU faculty and Grand Rapids Symphony members in the orchestra and even members of the Unity Christian High School Choral Ensemble.

Phipps said that as a university, we are in a unique position to bring art like the “Magnificat” and artists to the community. This art, he said, is the gift that the Fall Arts Celebration gives to the community.

“The university is uniquely situated to bring people of great energy, renown and brilliance and allow a showcase to happen sponsored by the university that the community can take part in,” Phipps said. “What can you say is the value in a great performance? What’s the value in a great lecture? What’s the value in seeing a great art exhibition? I suppose it’s the enrichment of humanity and the enrichment of our students.

“It’s not necessary to nail down what the description of that value is, we all instinctively know it because the arts and humanities are all part of who we are instinctively.”