Hard Work & Hallelujah!

Behind the Unbelievably Busy Scenes of PLU's Annual Christmas Concerts

By Barbara Clements, Chris Albert and Katie Scaff ’13

One Hour to Showtime

5 p.m. Dec. 3: Benaroya Hall

The recent rainfall of this December night teases out color from the Christmas lights in the trees near Seattle’s Benaroya Hall and splashes pools of reds, whites and blues onto the asphalt.

Chartered buses pull up, and out pour more than 150 Lutes, carefully ensuring their tuxes and instruments stay dry on the way to the back corridors of the famed performance hall.

It's been a months-long journey for this group, made up of PLU’s Choir of the West, University Chorale and University Symphony Orchestra. Students and professors alike have logged hundreds of hours learning music, dashing between classes, singing in the shower (really!), rising at 3 a.m. to finish a report—and staying up almost that late to wrap up more homework after practice.

Tonight’s highly anticipated performance is one of six the students will squeeze in during the precious few weeks before finals as fall semester draws to a close.

Hours before, even as the performers loaded buses at Pacific Lutheran University, it still was a bit of a scramble: It was raining there too, of course, and students, some bleary-eyed from all-nighters, raced to find the right bus—COW, Orchestra or Chorale.

Jeffrey Bell-Hanson, conductor of the orchestra and Associate Professor of Music, stood by the orchestra bus, checking his watch. Violist Christina Castello ’13 was late.

“A few more minutes, she’s going to have to find her own ride,” Bell-Hanson said.

But in a flash of red coat and blond hair, Castello dashed around the corner of Ingram Hall and neatly skipped onto the bus, just in time. The door closed, and the buses rumbled away.

After a little initial last-one-on-the-bus ribbing (and unrelated Instagram posting), the chatter died down. During the ride, students took advantage of every spare moment. The lights dimmed. The glow of laptops illuminated students’ faces, and the noise of shuffled notes and streaked highlighters grew louder than the conversations.

It was almost showtime, and this was no time to relax.

PLU's annual Christmas Concerts are a beloved seasonal celebration on campus and across the Northwest—each year, 150 students perform shows in Seattle and Portland in addition to three always-immediate sellouts at Lagerquist Hall


Tickets for this year's Christmas Concerts go on sale Nov. 1.

Find tickets


  • 7:30 pm Wednesday, Dec. 4: Benaroya Hall, Seattle.
  • 8 pm Saturday, Dec. 7: Lagerquist Hall, PLU campus.
  • 3 pm Sunday, Dec. 8: Lagerquist Hall, PLU campus.
  • 7:30 pm Tuesday, Dec. 10: Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.
  • 8 pm Friday, Dec. 13: Lagerquist Hall, PLU campus.

Scene followed several of these students through months of grueling preparation for the 2012 concerts: from challenging practices and last minute studying to jittery backstage nerves leading up to the sparkling candlelit procession into Benaroya Hall.

"There is no one on campus who is more busy than a music student," Choir of the West Director Richard Nance says.

Here are the students' inspiring (and exhausting) stories.

Richard Nance

"There is no one on campus who is more busy than a music student." - Richard Nance

25 Days to Showtime

4 p.m. Nov. 8: 208 GARFIELD

This is the way Mark Walsworth ’14 figures it: He has about four hours during the day to sleep and eat.  If he’s lucky.

At 208 Garfield, in a rare moment of inactivity, Walsworth, 20, is taking time to just sit and think—and to figure out when he’ll have time to finish his final papers. And to talk to his girlfriend, who fears Walsworth might collapse.

“Always the Christmas Concerts roll around when major projects are due,” he sighs.

He’s wrapped up more than a few labs on a midnight bus home from a concert.

And when homework doesn’t dictate a 3 a.m. alarm, Walsworth’s day starts around 8, every day, with physics and chemistry classes, and ends, at least four  days a week, around 10 p.m. Set alarm, repeat.

Every day is a fire drill: On Mondays, his chemistry-lab professor grants permission to leave early. Lab coat flapping behind him, Walsworth hustles to get to Lagerquist for choir practice by 3:40 p.m. On Tuesday, he throws in a shift at Hinderlie Hall’s front desk—along with voice lessons, tutoring, Red Carpet Club and another front-desk shift (this one at Hong Hall). No day gets easier.

“I find myself not sleeping very much,” he laughs.

But he’s done this before. The chemistry/physics double major (he plans to apply to medical school this year) first sang in Chorale for the Christmas Concerts as a freshman, and then in the Choir of the West (COW) as a sophomore.

Medicine is his calling; music his passion. It’s also a bit of a tradition—both parents are alums, and music always was part of the Walsworth household: His father, Charles Walsworth ’83, a retired elementary-school principal, sang in COW from 1980 to 1981—and formed a barbershop quartet with each of his sons singing a different vocal part.

There never was any question Walsworth would become part of the music scene at PLU—even with demanding studies, and even if it required learning a dozen complex pieces for the Christmas Concerts. Luckily, Walsworth lives among other music and arts folks in Hinderlie, so singing in his room before voice lessons doesn’t strike anyone as too odd.

“Choir has been part of my life, year after year. I would not trade it for anything,” he says.
Walsworth’s coffee is beginning to cool, and he’s beginning to check the time. He has to get back to class. There is a schedule to keep.

Julian Reisenthel '13

"As much as I prepare myself for it, you can never really prepare yourself enough for that moment when you step on stage. It never gets old." - Julian Reisenthel '13

3 Weeks 
to Showtime

3 p.m. Nov. 12: Mary Baker Russell Music Center

Julian Reisenthel ’13 has sung on stages he’d never imagined, thanks to Chorale and Choir of the West. And Benaroya’s is one of the biggest.

“As much as I prepare myself for it, you can never really prepare yourself enough for that moment when you step on stage. It never gets old,” Reisenthel says.

After three years, he’s developed a routine to keep himself on track, especially when concert practices ratchet up to four times a week after mid-semester.

“Preparation is always really crazy because it’s between finals and projects, and I just finished with the opera,” Reisenthel says. “I wake up at 8, and I start brewing a cup of tea immediately because my voice will not work without it. I warm up in the shower, which I’m sure my housemates totally love. Then, I drink said tea. Then, immediately, I have music classes, or I have opera first thing. Then, after that, I practice for 30 minutes to an hour in the practice rooms, just my own personal rep and for PLUtonic, and then choir stuff. Then business classes, then Choir of the West.

“I’m a TelALute, so I immediately 
go from Choir of the West to TelALutes. Then, when I get off from that at 9 o’clock, I try to do whatever homework I can. You can’t do all-nighters because your voice will suffer.”

But it’s all worth it.

“I think it’s been a learning experience for the people who are just starting, who have never sung a Christmas concert before. People get frustrated sometimes, but I like it when people realize they’re part of something bigger,” Reisenthel says. “The reward is so awesome—the reward of being able to sing for so many people and bring joy to people and bring joy to ourselves. We always keep that in the back of our minds.”

17 Days to Showtime

1 p.m. Nov. 16: MBR practice room

Sarah MacDonald '15 sits at the piano in a practice room in the Mary Baker Russell building. She’s trying to nail a part before rehearsal.

“If you come in and haven’t looked at the music since the last rehearsal, you won’t be productive,” she says. “You have to come in ready. You just have to set aside the time to practice or work on your memorization.”

MacDonald enjoys the process the most. The Santa Rosa, Calif., native says the experience is like a sports team, and seeing all the pieces come together through hours of rehearsals is a thrill.

“The memorization is nerve-wracking, but you don’t want to be the one who messes up,” she says. “People don’t realize how much work goes into it.”

Matching her voice to piano notes, she estimates it takes her six to eight hours a week of practice on her own to really prepare for rehearsals.

“You have to go in ready,” she says. “It’s like a test. You can’t cram for it and expect to do well.”

The sophomore came to PLU for the music program but has since changed majors to special education.

“I want to keep this as a fun thing,” MacDonald says. “I want to do it because I love it, not because I was going to make money or it’s my job.”

Benaroya Concert Hall

“The memorization is nerve-wracking, but you don’t want to be the one who messes up. People don’t realize how much work goes into it.” - Sarah MacDonald '15

15 Days 
to Showtime

3 P.M. NOV. 18: 208 GARFIELD

Violist and music major Castello is recounting the jobs she juggles, along with her studies and the music for the Christmas Concerts.

“Being a musician usually means you have more than one job,” she laughs.

In her case, Castello works 20-30 hours a week at a Puyallup Starbucks, as well as playing at weddings and in a band.

“People always needs strings at weddings and funerals,” she says.

When Castello, 22, first arrived at PLU, she declared her major in physical therapy, but since she was attending on a music scholarship, she started with a music minor. She quickly found herself more interested in her music classes than her science labs, and switched majors.

“I just found myself wanting to hang out with the orchestra,” she smiles. “I decided to just do it.”

These days, she talks, eats and sleeps music—and sometimes sneaks back into the music building at midnight for more practice.

“Yeah, the week before finals, I feel like a zombie,” she says.

13 Days 
to Showtime


Choir of the West Director Richard Nance is listening to a rendition of I  Saw Three Ships. It’s coming out flat and disjointed, he tells the singers. In fact, it’s sloppy. They don’t look pleased, and neither does Nance.

Walsworth, wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans, jokes with a woman next to him, and then stops. Time to get serious.

Brian Galante, PLU’s Associate Director of Choral Activities and conductor of the Chorale, moves the choir along, to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World.

“OK, everyone.  You’ve got to be better than this,” he says with a sigh. “You’ve got to know this cold.”

Waiting to go back in.

"Yeah, the week before finals, I feel like a zombie." - Christina Castello '13

One Week 
to Showtime


Lagerquist is a jumble of backpacks, music cases and coats. And Galante is in a better mood. “That was pretty near perfect,” he says. You can almost see the choirs let out a collective breath.

Jazz Studies Professor David Deacon-Joyner is listening to the advent cantata he’s been composing for a year, called Unto Us. Galante turns to him with a question mark on his face.

“Sounds good, but the brass needs to come down,” Deacon-Joyner says. “And I  couldn’t understand the words.”

So it’s back to the beginning.

4 Hours 
to Showtime


“I still can’t hear the strings,” Galante complains. He walks to the back and asks for a redo.

Nance is relaxed. He’s done all he can, so it’s time to tell stories.

He recalls one time a light bulb blew out on stage, so no one in the orchestra could see the cue to begin playing: They had to focus on the white cuffs of Nance’s tuxedo and detect when they moved.

10 Minutes 
to Showtime

7:20 pm Dec. 3: Benaroya Hall

Nance pops his head around the corner backstage and tells everyone it’s time to move to the side corridors and march into the hall with the lighted candles.

Walsworth’s warm-up hums stop. Castello grabs her viola and heads to her post, just out of sight of the 2,000 eager audience members.

There is no time for nerves now. The rustling in the hall falls silent. The first notes of the song begin to skip into the concert hall.

Everything has led to this moment.  

It is showtime.