Vespers in Douglas County bring in songs of the holiday season

Members of the Kansas University Symphonic Choir perform during the 82nd Holiday Vespers, featuring choirs and the KU Symphony Orchestra. The KU department of music and dance presented two performances Sunday at the Lied Center.

The holiday season brings the return of a strong local tradition: annual vespers concerts at Kansas University, Baker University and in Lecompton.

Music and themes will differ at each location, but each will include festive music celebrating the holiday season.

Kansas University plans worldly theme

The KU School of Music will host its 86th annual vespers on Dec. 5. This year’s theme is Winter Around the World, says Paul Tucker, director of choral activities.

“My goal in programming vespers for this year was to use more world music,” he says.

The performers will be doing French and Russian pieces, along with some familiar seasonal pieces and sing-alongs. They will also premier “Winter Prayer,” a piece written by KU Professor Forrest Pierce using Japanese Haiku for text.

Leawood senior Sara Blakesley, one of 225 musicians taking part, says this year’s vespers has a nice mixture of songs. Her personal favorite is a Russian song titled “Holy Radiant Light,” though they are singing the song in Russian.

“If you don’t like one song, you’ll like the next probably,” she says.

Blakesley, who’s been singing in choirs for years, has been involved in KU choirs for all four of her years at the university. She’s currently in the Chamber Singers but enjoys working with so many other students for vespers.

“It’s important because it gives the students a chance to collaborate with a larger group of singers and the orchestra, and it gives the community an opportunity to come in and share our music as well. It’s not really a Christmas thing, it’s a holiday spirit-type thing,” Blakesley, a voice major, says of vespers.

“I’m studying music because I feel the most like myself while I’m singing. It was the one thing I couldn’t do without, basically,” she says.

Other than the worldly theme, vespers is sporting several new additions this year.

“We’ll be incorporating dance this year,” Tucker says.

The music department plans to work with KU Dance Professor Jerel Hilding to include dances from the Nutcracker ballet while the orchestra plays accompaniment.

Tucker says he also wants to include faculty solo performances.

The KU School of Music is also putting together a dinner and concert package with The Oread hotel. Guests will park at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Ave., then take a bus to the Oread for a holiday buffet dinner with new KU Music Dean Robert Walzel.

They’ll return by bus in time for the concert. The package, which includes the show, dinner and transportation, will cost between $43 and $45.50.

Tickets for vespers are $10 for students and $12.50 for adults for both the 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. performances.

Tickets are available by calling 864-2787. For dinner and concert packages, contact Dina Pannabecker Evans at 864-4466.

Additionally, KU’s School of Music will perform its Jazz Vespers with music from Duke Ellington and the Billy Strayhorn “Nutcracker Suite,” with guest soloists Vince Gnojek, Steve Leisring and Bob Walzel. That concert is 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Lied Center, and tickets are $5-$7. Call 864-2787.

Lecompton celebrates Christmas spirit

Lecompton held its first community vespers at the Territorial Capital Museum in 1984 — two years after the museum itself opened in 1982. They’ve been doing it ever since, and it’s grown each year.

“We extensively decorate all three floors of the museum, bring in a 15-foot native Kansas Christmas cedar tree, and decorate it with handmade ornaments,” says Paul Bahnmaier, president of the Lecompton Historical Society.

The decorations are put up before Thanksgiving and stay through the New Year and make a festive setting for the vespers, which is held in the museum’s chapel.

Bahnmaier, who has been involved with the vespers since its inception and is in charge of organizing it this year, says it’s a family-oriented event that incorporates many community members. There will be songs by the Lecompton United Methodist Church choir, Perry Lecompton High School singers, the First Methodist Church bell choir from Topeka and a number of individual performers.

Frances Sanford, a local piano teacher, has participated nearly every year as the organ half of an organ-piano duet. The duo also plays the processional and recessional for the choir each year.

Sanford says she like likes the beautiful setting for the concert. The stage is lined with red and white poinsettias, which match the red and white ceiling of the chapel. She also likes the historical aspect of the chapel — President Eisenhower’s parents were married there.

Bahnmaier also loves the atmosphere.

“The whole atmosphere that exists that day and the quality of the music is excellent, and it’s just an opportunity to enjoy the Christmas season,” he says. “It’s usually the first event of the Christmas seasons in Lecompton. It initiates the season.”

The performance always ends with the playing of “Silent Night” on the melodeon. This melodeon dates back to 1857, when it was in the Lecompton Presbyterian Church.

When the capital of Kansas moved to Topeka, the Hoad family took the melodeon. They brought it back from North Carolina to install into the museum when it opened, and it’s been there since. A melodeon is like a small version of an organ, and it’s foot-pumped.

Lecompton will hold its vespers at the Territorial Capital Museum chapel, 609 Woodson in Lecompton, 2 p.m. Dec. 5. Admission is free to both the vespers and the museum, which will be open from noon to 5 p.m.

Baker University marking 80th Vespers

Baker will incorporate the community into its 80th annual performance in a bigger role ever before. Instead of coming to watch, some community members will be performing alongside students in the University Community Choir, a new group started by Baker’s Director of Choral Activities, Matthew Potterton

The group practices once a week and incorporates Baldwin City residents, with Baker students, faculty and staff.

Potterton, new last year, started the Community Choir in his first year at the University.

“I started that choir last semester and received great feedback from Baker and the community,” he says.

He based the choir on one of Baker’s missions: community outreach. He had great turn out at the first rehearsal and has about 65 to 70 dedicated members, he says.

All three of the participating choirs — the community choir, a concert choir of 60 members, and a chamber choir of 15 members — will sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah to end the concert.

“All of the choirs will sing the piece jointly, and I think it will be a spectacular ending,” Potterton says.

The music will include a wide variety of traditional carols, jazz, chant and African folk songs, says Steve Rottinghaus, director of public relations at Baker. There will be a faculty brass quintet, a percussion ensemble and a saxophone quartet as well.

There will be 130 singers and 25 orchestra members this year, in addition to the other small ensembles.

“I love that this concert showcases such a large percentage of our school population,” Potterton says.

Potterton says he’s very happy to continue a great music making tradition at Baker. Last year, he met alumni who graduated in the 1940s and 1950s and still come back for the concerts.

“Vespers is a gift to the community of Baldwin. There is no admission fee. The concert has become a family tradition for many,” Potterton says. “I have met several people who said they had been coming to this concert for 50 years. Some mentioned that it was the official start to their holiday season.”

Baker University’s vespers will take place Dec. 5 at Baldwin City’s First United Methodist Church, 704 Eighth St.. There are 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. concerts. Admission is free.

“If you want a good seat, get there early,” Rottinghaus says. “This is the biggest concert of the year, and the community turnout is usually very high.”