In 1991, Rockhurst University hired Timothy McDonald to create a music department from scratch.
The ambitious young music professor went to work, not only building a fine music program for the Jesuit university, but also two choirs — one composed of students and other, Musica Sacra, of some of the city’s finest singers and instrumentalists.
Both choirs are still going strong and their holiday concerts have become an important part of Kansas City’s Christmas celebrations. Rockhurst University students will present their annual Ceremony of Lessons and Carols at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 and Musica Sacra will perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio and a selection of traditional carols at 7 p.m. Dec. 2. Both concerts are at Arrupe Hall Auditorium on the Rockhurst University campus.
“When I came out and interviewed in 1991, I told them my plan was not only to start a student choir, but also Musica Sacra, which would be devoted to sacred music for chorus and orchestra using musicians from the community,” McDonald said. “With the students, especially at a Catholic Jesuit University, I thought a Lessons and Carols concert would be a perfect annual Christmas program”
McDonald says that first year was “kind of sad.” The student choir only had nine singers, as well as McDonald’s wife, Adrienne, and another staff member. That inaugural Ceremony of Lessons and Carols drew an audience of 50.
“But the dean seemed quite happy at the time,” McDonald said. “The next year we probably had 150 or 200 people in the audience, and the third year it was standing-room only.”
This year’s Lessons and Carols will feature a choir of 22 students, as well as string quartet, harp and organ.
“Of all the years that I’ve done Lessons and Carols, and this is the 28th, I’m may be looking forward to this concert the most,” McDonald said. “This year we’re doing a hymn from Southern Harmony, from 1835, called ‘Brightest and Best,’ and it is really upbeat and reflects the rustic quality of the hymn tune.”
McDonald says the concert also will feature an arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Dan Forrest, which he says is the “finest arrangement of this carol I’ve heard.” A stirring arrangement of “O Holy Night” by the 19th-century French composer Adolphe Adam will conclude the concert — as has been tradition for the past few years.
“It’s poignant with intriguing harmonies and it’s also a little haunting,” McDonald said.
The centerpiece of this year’s Musica Sacra concert is by Camille Saint-Saëns, a French composer best known for “Carnival of the Animals” and the Organ Symphony. The Oratorio de Noël was composed by Saint-Saëns in 1858 and performed on Christmas of that year.
Saint-Saëns’ oratorio is not a dramatic, theatrical work like Handel’s “Messiah.” It is a meditation on the birth of Christ, the musical equivalent of contemplating an icon.
“It’s a glorious piece,” McDonald said. “Saint-Saëns was quite young when he wrote it. He was only 23. It’s filled with these glorious melodies. This is what you’d hear if you were approaching heaven. It sounds like the song of angels.”
The Oratorio de Noël also epitomizes one of the hallmarks of McDonald’s programming. He is never satisfied with the same old, same old. He’s always ferreting out unusual works that are hardly ever heard in concert.
“‘Messiah’ and ‘Nutcracker’ are wonderful works, but there’s a lot more out there than that,” McDonald said. “I’m very pleased with both of these programs. They are two very different concerts with different repertoire. It always brings joy to my heart to see people come back year after year and say that it’s the way they begin their Christmas season.”
Rockhurst University Department of Music, Ceremony of Lessons and Carols: 7 p.m. Dec. 1. Arrupe Hall Auditorium, Rockhurst University, 5351 Forest Ave. Free. To register, call 816-501-4828 or visit rockhurst.edu/lessonsandcarols2018.
Musica Sacra, Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio and Traditional Carols: 7 p.m. Dec. 2. Arrupe Hall Auditorium. $12-$22. 816-235-6222 or rockhurst.edu/musicasacra.
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.