Willamette Students Sing for CBS on Christmas Eve

Put together 235 singers, 16 instrumentalists, 14 bell ringers, one giant pipe organ, 26 microphones, six television cameras, miles of cabling and 85 spotlights burning more than 56,000 watts an hour and what do you get? This year's nationally televised CBS/Hallmark Christmas Eve Special featuring 118 Willamette University students singing in three University choirs.

Local technical crews arrived on Nov. 18 and spent two days stringing lights, building platforms and setting up cameras at the First Presbyterian Church in Salem. The show was taped Nov. 20 and will air Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) in the 11:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. Central and Mountain Standard Time) timeslot normally reserved for David Letterman. It's anticipated that at least 2.6 million people will tune in Christmas Eve to hear Willamette's singers and three other choirs and instrumentalists in the 59-minute program.

The magician behind this musical extravaganza has been Christine Welch, a music instructor at Willamette and director of Voce Femina, Willamette's 40-voice women's choir. She is also the musical director at the First Presbyterian Church where she directs the 60-member mixed Chancel Choir. She says coordination was the key in making this mammoth event run smoothly.

"I had this notebook I carried around for weeks," Welch said in a recent interview. "It contained the answers to everything anyone might ask about this event. I had six different schedules typed up from every group and their accompanying instrumentalists."

Welch, who joked that CBS stood for "Christine's Busy Season," said the biggest challenge was "the chorography, making sure that for these certain minutes I had these people here and for those certain minutes I had those people there."

Paul Klemme, who directs the Male Ensemble Willamette, says Christine Welch was the "perfect person" to harmoniously bring together 266 voices and instruments. "It takes someone like Christine who has vision and is willing to put in a tremendous amount of energy to organize something like this," he said. "She's a consummate musician and has a good feel for what this sort of event needs."

It was Welch's job not only to musically prepare her choirs, but to direct five of the six choirs, the bell ringers and the instrumentalists during the concert. The groups had never performed together before. They rehearsed together one Saturday, had a three-hour technical rehearsal and then the television cameras rolled.

Willamette music professor Wallace Long, who directed the university's mixed-voice Chamber Choir during the performance, said one of the biggest problems was finding enough space for everyone. While the First Presbyterian Church's sanctuary is relatively large, 266 singers, instruments and a plethora of lighting and taping equipment filled the space quickly. "Physically trying to provide space for musicians like violinists to move without stabbing someone with their bow is really a challenge," said Wallace. "Christine had to find a place for all the vocalists and instrumentalists during the performance where they could see and hear her and one another. It was a real challenge."

Wallace's Chamber Choir, the only group to perform solo, sang an arrangement of "There Will Be Rest." A challenge for him was fitting the song into the precise 4½-minute time slot. "The song was longer than the time allotted. I had to decide how to carefully move parts of it faster to fit into the time slot."

Willamette students like Krysta Drechsler, a member of Voce Femina, said they found participating in a nationally televised musical program "really exciting. I'm way excited. I'd never done anything this big."

Voce Femina sang "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" with the Presbyterian's mixed-voice choir, accompanied by brass, organ and hand bells.

Drechsler, a junior majoring in English, said the biggest challenge for her was "getting used to the sound. In rehearsal, we're used to hearing just women's voices. The sound was completely different with an orchestra and another choir."

Curtis Bell, who sings low base in Male Ensemble Willamette and the Chamber Choir, said the biggest challenge was "putting the different groups together. There are different conductors with different styles and we've been trained to do different things."

Bell believes he was able to avoid getting too stressed out about being on national television by staying focused. "You have to stay focused on the music and the performance," he said. "We were able to keep our heads in the music and not get carried away with national TV and all the hype."

For Willamette music major Alice Jolly, singing in the CBS program was especially important because it will give her a way to share Christmas with her family in Honolulu. "I don't get to go home for Christmas this year," she said. "My parents can turn on the TV in Hawaii on Christmas Eve and see me. That's really special."