The 1963 Christmas Vesper Concert.
The Arts Academy Choir performs the 1962 Christmas Vesper Concert in the Liberal Arts Rotunda.
A scene from the 1966 performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Nicholas Harsanyi leads the choir in a rehearsal for L'Enfance du Christ by Berlioz.
A scene from the first full-length performance of The Nutcracker at Interlochen Arts Academy in 1973.
Thomas Stephenson (center) as Drosselmeyer in the 1973 performance of The Nutcracker.
December at Interlochen Arts Academy is a time for juries, final exams, and travel plans. But between the bustle, it’s also a time to celebrate the season through art.
Today, students, locals, and parents flock to Corson Auditorium for Sounds of the Season and the holiday ballet. While the current traditions are relatively young, seasonal performances have been part of holidays at Interlochen since the Academy’s first year.
In 1962, the Arts Academy Choir hosted Interlochen’s first holiday performance: the Christmas Vesper Concert. With indoor venues like the Jessie V. Stone Building and Corson Auditorium not yet constructed, the program was held in the Liberal Arts Rotunda, and featured holiday readings and sing-along carols.
The Vesper Concert returned in 1963, moving to the newly completed Jessie V. Stone Building. The larger venue allowed for more participants in the festivities: The 1963 edition of the concert was accompanied by piano, organ, and the Festival Chamber Orchestra.
The Christmas Choral Concerts of 1964 and 1965 were much the same as their predecessors; lightly accompanied choral performances in the Jessie V. Stone Building. But in 1966, the program was again expanded. For the first time, two performances of the holiday program were offered. The concerts featured members of the Academy Orchestra and Opera Department in Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.
In 1967, the traditional choral concert was again set aside, this time in favor of two holiday classics. In late November, dancers performed the full second act of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker. Two weeks later, the Arts Academy Choir presented Handel’s Christmas oratorio, The Messiah. Voice Instructors Joan Dudd and Waldie Anderson and guests Conwell Carrington and Eleanor Felver performed the solo roles.
The holiday season of 1969 brought another Christmas oratorio to Interlochen’s stage: Hector Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ. Nicholas Harsanyi conducted the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, which was joined by vocal soloists Waldie Anderson, Janice Harsanyi, Albert DeRuiter, and Theodore Loudermilk (IAC/NMC 66-69, IAA 66-67, 69-70).
The Arts Academy Choir and Orchestra again teamed up during the 1970 holiday season, this time for a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata Hodie. Dudd and Anderson returned as soloists, along with guest Carroll Strickland.
By 1972, seasonal festivities were an all-campus affair. The Christmas Concert, again held in Jessie V. Stone gymnasium, featured numbers by the Interlochen Arts Academy Chorale and selections from The Messiah by the Arts Academy Choir and Orchestra. The Dance Department staged two scenes from The Nutcracker, with choreography by Helen Earl. The evening concluded with a carol sing for audience members accompanied by the choir and orchestra.
A beloved tradition began in 1973, as the Dance Division gave its first full-length performance of Tchaikovsky’s holiday ballet, The Nutcracker. Although The Nutcracker is not performed annually, the presentation of a full-length ballet in December has become part of the rhythms of life at Interlochen Arts Academy. Over the years, The Nutcracker has alternated with Sleeping Beauty and Coppelia. This December, for the first time ever, Academy dancers staged Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as their holiday ballet.
In 1978, solo performers and small ensembles began getting into the holiday spirit. Organ students traveled to Central United Methodist Church in nearby Traverse City to present an evening of carols and sacred songs, and the trombone quartet played Christmas carols during the intermission of the December dance concert. These run-out organ performances and intermission carol-sings would become near-annual occurrences for the next decade.
Interlochen invited the community to join in the festivities for the 1979 holiday concert. The Arts Academy choirs were joined by local ensembles including the Traverse City Junior High Choir, Traverse City Ensemble Four, and the Traverse City Madrigal Singers. Each group performed individually before uniting for “An American Carol Sampler.”
The success of student performances led to holiday-themed presentations by guest artists. Most notable among these was the Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s production of A Christmas Carol, which made its Interlochen debut in 1985. The 1985 performance was so enthusiastically received that the Caravan’s Carol became an annual tradition that continued until the early 2000s.
While most of Interlochen’s holiday performances have focused on the Christmas holidays, a few have highlighted other December observances. Hanukkah songs have occasionally appeared alongside their Christmas counterparts during the holiday performances, and in 1985, a group of students and faculty gave a special presentation about the meaning, rituals, and practices of Hanukkah.
In 2009, the Theatre Department joined the festivities with a performance of A Christmas Carol: The Musical. Longtime theatre instructor David Montee starred as Ebenezer Scrooge, with Tierney Lanham (IAC 09, IAA 09-11), Noah Ricketts (IAA 09-10), and Kathleen Kleiger (IAC 07-08, IAA 09-10) as the ghosts and future Interlochen Arts Academy student Luke Klein (IAA 17-18) as Tiny Tim. As an early Christmas gift to the actors, the musical’s composer, Academy parent Alan Menken, attended the performance.
The current tradition of Sounds of the Season began in 2012 with the Arts Academy Band and Choir as its core ensembles. Over the years, students, faculty, and staff of arts disciplines have contributed their talents to the performance. The concert has become a beloved tradition in the Grand Traverse region, boasting sold-out crowds for five consecutive years. This year’s performance featured appearances by Instructor of Oboe Dane Philipsen and Instructor of Voice Jeff Norris, and was hosted by Interlochen Public Radio’s Kate Botello.
While much has changed since the first Christmas Vesper Concert, the holiday spirit is still alive and well at Interlochen. Now, as then, the holidays provide an opportunity for community and celebration in the midst of the cold Michigan winter.