Annual Kirkpatrick Chapel Holiday Concert Reimagined in Pandemic

Members of the Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and Rutgers University Glee Club singing in front of a piano
Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and Rutgers University Glee Club will debut their annual holiday concert on the Mason Gross School of the Arts Facebook and YouTube pages at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 12.
Cameron Bowman

The Carol and Song performance by choirs from Mason Gross goes virtual in stirring compilation of choral music and imagery

Some traditions are so strong, not even a pandemic can break them.

For more than six decades, the annual performance of Christmas in Carol and Song in the Kirkpatrick Chapel has been a hallmark of the holidays in New Jersey. The Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and Rutgers University Glee Club have united each year since 1958 for the often-sold-out concerts that fill the scarlet-colored walls of the landmark Rutgers venue.

Patrick Gardner, distinguished professor of music and director of choral activities at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, said it was a tradition too meaningful to let fall to another COVID-19 cancellation.

“In this year when we’ve lost so much, not just traditions but daily connections – seeing our friends, being in our offices and classrooms, and greeting each other at everything from football games to choir practices – we wanted to find a way to give people some comfort,” said Gardner, who has orchestrated these performances for the past quarter century.

With members of both choirs scattered across the country, Gardner and his students went to work to reinvent the holiday tradition. They were determined to go beyond the Zoom concerts with performers confined to their singing squares that have become a custom during the pandemic.

Instead, Gardner brought on award-winning visual artist Camilla Tassi and Rutgers graduate student Stephanie Tubiolo to create 10 individual concert videos that showcase the soaring vocals of both choirs and the historic chapel’s American Collegiate Gothic architecture. In the video, a small pod of students who live off campus together perform some of the concert’s traditional processions while decorating the chapel. The most challenging part of the virtual performance, Gardner said, was weaving in audio and visuals from 90 other members of the choirs who each recorded themselves remotely while singing their parts to each piece.  

The result is a stirring compilation of song and imagery that will debut on the MGSA Facebook and YouTube pages at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 12.

“The goal is to make audiences feel like it’s their own concert. You enter the chapel, get a program, and sit down in an empty pew,” said Gardner. “We can’t physically be there, but we are there.”

Gardner is preserving a tradition started by former choral director David Drinkwater. When Drinkwater arrived at Rutgers in 1955, the annual Christmas event was a pageant dating to the 1920s. He designed Christmas in Carol and Song as a religious service with a small number of secular pieces. The concept was adapted from an annual performance presented at Union Seminary that was inspired by the service of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College Chapel at Cambridge.

This year’s program includes traditional performances of works from Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen to "King David" and "Silent Night", all rehearsed in online classes during this remote semester, along with concert works from John Tavener, Cecilia McDowall, Will Todd, and others. The thunderous ending from the Honegger “King David” will still hold its place – newly recorded by the 2020 students of the Rutgers University Kirkpatrick Choir and Glee Club.

The group of students known at Mason Gross as the Handy Street 8, who have been living together through the pandemic, are featured throughout the concert. They lit candles, trimmed the trees and hung garland while singing the concert’s two carols, “The First Noel” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

the Handy Street 8 decorating a Christmas tree
The Handy Street 8, who have been living together through the pandemic, are featured throughout the concert.
Cameron Bowman

The group includes Michael Lazarow, 21, who has been a member of both choirs for three years. The vocal music education major said the Christmas concert is one of his favorite annual performances, so he was grateful for the opportunity to help uphold that tradition.

“I will be able to show this video to my kids one day and say, ‘This is us during the pandemic,’” said Lazarow of the unique experience. “We were able to showcase something really special and give people something similar, instead of just forgetting about it.”

While there is nothing that compares to the feeling of performing in the chapel before a crowd of 500, Lazarow and his podmates did have the opportunity to perform for one very special guest: President Jonathan Holloway, who recorded a holiday message for the performance from the back of the chapel, in between the students’ rehearsal from the altar.

“While President Holloway won’t be able to attend his first Christmas in Carol and Song live, we are very pleased he could participate with us and address the audience,” said Gardner. “It was exciting to us as performers to see what a great performer he is. He recorded in one take and sounded beautiful. I wish I could get him to audition for our baritone section.”

Since it was Holloway’s first time in the chapel, the student singers treated him to a spontaneous performance of Rutgers’ alma mater, "On the Banks of the Old Raritan" in four-part harmony.

“It didn’t click for me at first that this was probably one of his first interactions with students because of the pandemic,” said Lazarow. “He’s been missing out on that.”

The magnitude of the gesture was not lost on Holloway.

“It took me a few measures to process it, but when I realized the students were singing the alma mater, I was overwhelmed,'' Holloway said. "To be welcomed in that way, and in that lovely space, was truly powerful. I won’t soon forget the singers’ generosity—or their amazing voices!”