Behind the Scenes of a Stage Spectacular, Dec. 6-9

Stetson’s Christmas Candlelight Concerts

What does it take to orchestrate approximately 200 students — singers, instrumentalists, keyboardists and others — to continue a musical tradition that dates back more than a century over four early-December nights in two different venues? 

Tim Peter, DMA

We’re talking about Stetson’s Christmas Candlelight Concerts, set for Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 6-9, in Lee Chapel on campus with the final performance at First United Methodist Church of Orlando. The campus concerts are already sold out.

Tim and Sandra Peter smile at the question almost simultaneously, and knowingly. Tim Peter, DMA, professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities, has been conducting the Stetson Christmas Candlelight Concerts since joining the School of Music faculty in 2012. Sandra Peter, DMA, has been on the choral faculty since 2016.

Their simple answer: Planning for the next year begins quite literally when the current year’s concerts have ended. In other words, it’s almost immediately. 

Sandra Peter, DMA

“Oh, my,” says Tim. “We sometimes start [planning] the week after the prior year. … There are oftentimes that Sandra and I will be having coffee early in the morning. It’s a few days after, and we’re thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool for next year to do this piece or something?’” 

Adds Sandra, “We’re thinking about next year already. We’re always thinking about it and looking for ideas, whether it’s a specific piece of music, a poem we can use as a narration or a concept for a theme.” 

Robust Presentation

In all, Stetson’s Concert Choir, Stetson Chorale and Hatter Choir participate in the Christmas Candlelight Concerts. Stetson’s fourth choir, Choral Union, performs separately, usually presenting a major choral/orchestral work in late November. Choral Union is composed of both Stetson students and community members, and presents one concert per semester. The majority of those students are also in one of the choirs that performs for Christmas Candlelight.

Approximately 200 students participate in what they often describe as a highlight of their Stetson experience.

Membership of Stetson’s Concert Choir, Stetson Chorale and Hatter Choir is determined before the fall semester begins, with participation and practices for the Candlelight Concerts being part of their syllabus. And, in essence, the concerts are the students’ final exam. 

As for the student instrumentalists, the choral faculty works with the School of Music’s studio teachers, as well as the instrumental ensemble directors, to help determine participants. Students, of course, must have the ability to perform well, but also must have a schedule that allows them to practice when required. 

The demands are significant.

“So,” Tim Peter explains, “our Candlelight orchestras over the years have been a collection of students who are both selected and asked. It’s a combination. Bottom line, they are volunteering their time, and we so appreciate their contribution to the event.” 

Precise Orchestration

Then, all of the concert participants must be, well, orchestrated — positioned both on stage and throughout the venue in sort of a moving puzzle. Each performance runs approximately 90 minutes, with only one opportunity for applause toward the end. The goal is to create an overall experience for both the performers and the audience that differs from a typical concert.

Concert staging requires “flow charts.”

During the Candlelight performances, each of the three choirs performs individual pieces of its own. Additionally, there are five selections that involve all three choirs together. And, while there will always be a choir on stage, for those mass pieces sung together by the three choirs, singers are situated in the balcony and main floor aisles. Such positioning requires detailed diagrams, or “flow charts,” as they are called.

“We have to figure out where everyone’s going to be when we sing these pieces together,” says Sandra Peter. “And then we move around because, for example, the Concert Choir is going to be on the stage alone to do three pieces. But then Chorale and Hatter Choir each take their turn on stage. So, ensembles move during the audience carols throughout the performance.”

“Every set, every move, different positions,” Tim Peter chimes in.

And practice? There isn’t much all together. While the choirs rehearse separately throughout the semester, and the instrumentalists gather together once or twice on their own in late November, there are only three days of practice as a full group. Those three days are the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday leading up to the first performance on Wednesday, Dec. 6.

Tim Peter describes the Candlelight Concerts as a mix of art and science. 

“This event really exemplifies that kind of cross-pollination of disciplines,” he says. “There’s art and kind of a creative spirit, but there is a very rational, practical, mathematical side to how you organize the various types of music, line up the singers and present the overall content.” 

Diversity is part of the blend, too. 

A closeup of choir members holding candles
The concerts’ messaging is one of hope, reconciliation and rejoicing.

“We are committed to representing diversity, both cultural and certainly geographical, because we try to bring the world to Stetson through this concert,” Tim continues. “This year’s program, for example, includes pieces from South Africa, Nigeria, Haiti, Catalonia, Ireland, Wales and Germany. People of diverse backgrounds, both women and men, are represented as composers, arrangers and text sources.”  

“It’s a concert with familiar, beloved Christmas carols, traditional decorations and lighting of candles, albeit battery-operated,” Sandra says. “The message is one of hope, reconciliation and rejoicing. We also broaden each year in a variety of ways. For example, various poems serve as our narrations and reflect the theme in different ways.”

Memories for All

Not surprisingly, all of this isn’t new to the Peters. They began working together on Christmas concerts in 1991 at Luther College in Iowa (Tim’s undergraduate alma mater). Having spent much of their time in the Midwest, where traditional holiday concerts are celebrated at many colleges, they easily and eagerly connected with the Stetson Christmas Candlelight history and tradition. 

“It’s very much part of both of us — our undergrad experience,” comments Sandra, who received her bachelor’s degree from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. “We were in large programs that had multiple choirs. So, on that Sunday night after Thanksgiving [the first group practice before the first concert], we know there are schools all over the country practicing, bringing everybody together. It’s a joy to make sure our students know this and that they are part of a large community.”

candlelight-resized group
Lee Chapel is dressed for the season.

For the Peters, the Christmas Candlelight Concerts are no doubt a labor of love. Yet, they’re equally clear that this is about the students. 

“The investment of time and energy is so great,” says Tim. “And to see friends and families, especially on Saturday [at the final performance], enjoying the music and the experience, it fills our hearts. The students give their all, and many truly see it as a highlight of their Stetson experience.” 

“Lee Chapel will be decorated with trees, lights and garland,” concludes Sandra. “The audience sings Christmas carols. Those are actually my favorite moments, when everybody in the room is singing together. I think a lot of the students would agree. I mean, that’s what it’s about — sharing and making music together, creating something special as a community, taking time to reflect upon and experience the joy of the season.”

Note: For tickets to the Christmas Candlelight Concert in Orlando, visit this website.

-Michael Candelaria