Christmastime is here: American Festival Chrous presents annual holiday show

Dec 11, 2015

Santa Claus paid an early visit to Cache Valley last week, spreading Christmas cheer through the American Festival Chorus and Orchestra during the seventh annual “Christmas from the Ellen Eccles Theatre.”

“It has just gotten bigger. It’s fun to do down at the Ellen Eccles Theatre.” AFC managing director Elaine Olson said. “It’s starting off the holiday spirit. We live in a community where arts are appreciated.”

Olson said there is something about hearing Christmas music prior to the holiday that makes the show so special, and musicians and vocalists agree.

“It’s really hard to not come out of that concert and feel very excited about the season,” said Claire Cardon, a violinist in the American Festival Orchestra.

Now in its seventh season, the 220-member American Festival Chorus and 50-55 piece American Festival Orchestra is led by music director Craig Jessop, who employed various elements to the show. Different musical arrangements and three special guest stars — instead of the typical two — highlighted the 2015 performance.


Spreading holiday cheer through holiday songs shortly after Thanksgiving helps kick off the Christmas season in a lively fashion, Cardon said.

The brainchild of Jessop, founder and music director of the American Festival Chorus and Orchestra, “Christmas from the Ellen Eccles Theatre” gives a lively traditional holiday feeling to the theater, setting the

mood that Christmas is coming.

“A powerful feeling emanates from spreading the holiday feeling at the Ellen Eccles Theatre, a Logan city jewel, Jessop said. “To me it’s an exquisite jewel that has been preserved. Those of us who grew up in this valley have a great deal of affection for that place.”

Accommodating 1,100 people with great acoustics in a classy venue, the Ellen Eccles Theatre is comparable to a European opera house found in Germany or France, Jessop said. Members of the American Festival Chorus say performing in the venue with Jessop is a significant opportunity.

“This program is not New York,” said Richard Daems, a member of the American Festival Chorus. “But it’s pretty impressive. It’s world-class.”

Eric Collins, a bass in the American Festival Chorus, said the Christmas concert is the best concert the chorus does during the year.

“This one, I think, it’s the spirit of the Christmas season and the feeling it brings to the community, I think is special,” Collins said. “I think it’s the greatest one we do. We do the Veterans Day concert and Fourth of July and those are all fun, too, but this is probably my funnest.”


Standing in front of a wire scrim painting of Mount Logan and the mountains of the east side of the valley, with snowflakes dangling from christmas lights fastened to the ceiling, Jessop’s vision was to bring the spirit of Christmas into the lives of the audience members watching the sold-out concerts, which he hoped to do through this year’s musical arrangement.

“If people look at their watch, the program is too long,” Jessop, former music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, said. “I want them to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know where that two hours went. They could’ve played on all night!’. I don’t want them to say, ‘I thought they’d never stop playing.’ I try to keep a 50-minute first half, an intermission and then a little shorter second half so that people are walking out of the theater just a little shy of two hours.”

Having worked with music for practically his whole life and arranging Christmas concerts for about four decades, his formula, Jessop said, is to begin with the end of the concert in mind, and pinpoint how he wants the audience to feel leaving the concert, how they should feel at the end of the first half, and at the beginning of the second half. An important element of producing a program like this, he said, is knowing not only what numbers to do but where to place them in the program, creating a certain flow to the program.

“I look at the key relationships so that you don’t have songs that are back to back in the same key,” Jessop said. “That’s something that the audience would not be consciously aware of, but they would be aware of a certain sameness.”

One example, he said, was his decision to start the concert off with “Joy to the World” and then transition to “The First Noel,” what he called “traditional familiar carols,”; he then moved to “Ring the Christmas Bells,” performed by the Westminster Bell Choir to showcase a unique sounding medley. Following the Westminster Bell Choir, the audience was introduced to the three guest artists: violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, singer Jenny Jordan Frogley and composer Kurt Bestor, increasing the excitement among audience members who were very familiar with the three guest stars’ work.

Jessop said Oaks Baker and Jordan Frogley were initially intended to be the only guest stars for the 2015 show. However, Bestor’s agent called Jessop saying Bestor would love to come back to Logan, and so the acclaimed composer was added, as well.

Bestor arranged the songs that Frogley and Baker performed, including “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “Wexford Carol,” and “Gesu Bambino,” in the first half, and “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, “O Come O Come, Emmanuel” and “Silent Night” following intermission.

One song that seemed to stimulate the audience’s excitement was Bestor’s version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” as it incorporated various musical cinematic elements as a member of the audience read the “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” story aloud.

Cinematic elements, including the 20th Century Fox score and “Mission: Impossible” theme song, helped project a visualization of the story into the minds of the audience along with musical accompaniment as the story was read outlaid, line by line. On the line, “not even a mouse,” which was read as “only one mouse,” the orchestra accompanied it with a light musical score to imprint the image of one mouse stirring into theminds of the audience.

Having dedicated a lifetime to music, Jessop said “Christmas from the Ellen Eccles Theatre” is very special to him, and it is a show that he hopes will continue to enthrall the community.

“I love doing it, and it’s something that I want to do for the next several years,” Jessop stated.