MOORHEAD — Christmas is a time for routines. For many, it’s a predictable mix of shopping, baking, cooking, eating, drinking, traveling and gathering with friends and family.
For the past 34 years, René Clausen has known exactly where he would be the first weekend of December. He knew what he would wear, and even what he would be eating.
Sure enough, on Friday, Dec. 6, Clausen will don his black tuxedo and take his place in Concordia College’s Memorial Auditorium to lead the Concordia Christmas Concerts.
It’s something Clausen has done for 33 years, but this will be his last for that routine as he is retiring this spring.
Having served as the conductor for the Concordia Choir since 1986, Clausen knows former students and faculty will attend this weekend’s concerts to see his farewell. While he acknowledges emotions are starting to build, he’s choosing to focus on the music and its theme, “My Spirit Sings.”
“This concert is full of joy and uplifting music,” he says in his office. “We transform a gym into something with the beauty and feel of a concert hall. It still makes me smile… It’s a messed up world and there’s lots of divisiveness. People come out the concert for moments of resplendent beauty. The connection with the audience is unique because people have come for decades.”
Clausen took over when Paul J. Christiansen retired. While the annual Christmas concerts started in 1927, eight years before Christiansen arrived, the conductor built the annual event into the musical highlight of the year, not just for the school, but the region. Today the concerts aren’t only held on campus, but in Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, as well as recorded for broadcast.
Though he helped develop the event over his 49 years at the school, Christiansen wasn’t just hands-off once Clausen took over — he rarely talked to his successor about the concert.
“I studied what he did, how he made it work. I studied the flow of a concert,” Clause says. “I always felt respect from him. The lesson I learned from Paul J. is to let things be.”
While Christiansen didn’t talk about the significance of the concert with him, Clausen remembers then-President Paul Dovre telling him he had big shoes to fill.
Clausen confided, “I have big feet.”
“What’s important,” Dovre said, “is that you bring your own shoes.”
“It was a great boost of confidence,” Clausen says.
Under his leadership, the Concordia Choir continued to grow as did the Christmas concerts, but there were growing pains.
“There was this learning curve for me. I didn’t know some of these traditions,” says Clausen, who studied at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and had never seen the Christmas concert.
He didn’t even know the concerts traditionally begin with the chiming of a bell three times until, during a rehearsal, a student asked why they weren’t using the bell.
Over the years, he has branched out some from traditional compositions and brought in elements of world music.
Some changes worked and some didn’t. He recalls employing a flying kite to soar during the show one year, but in one of the first concerts, it hit a light and that flight was grounded.
“I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to hear about that,’” he says with a laugh now.
Still, choir members and concertgoers have embraced his dedication and vision for the show, which he finalizes by mid-June every year.
He remembers mingling with the crowd after a concert when he noticed an elderly woman waving him over. She beckoned Clausen to bend over so she could tell him something and he prepared himself for a compliment. He got one, but it wasn’t the one he expected.
“There’s nothing sexier than a man in a tuxedo,” she told him.
He sees generations attending the concert year after year, knowing for many it is a tradition.
Clausen has his own routines for the concert. A few hours before showtime, he’ll get a hamburger, fries and a chocolate milk. After eating, he sits in his office alone just before the concert to calm himself down. Just before he starts the concert, he’ll pop an Altoid.
“The taste makes me calm,” he says.
His routine actually begins Friday afternoon, hours before the first concert, when he sits alone in the auditorium.
“When no one is in there, I like to sit and absorb the whole experience, because next time I’ll be sitting in the front row with no job to do,” he says.
He’s focusing on this year’s concert, but imagines he’ll be able to appreciate all of the work that goes into the show as an audience member. He likes the analogy of a chef who doesn’t have to cook at Thanksgiving.
“I can take off the chef’s hat and feast and enjoy,” he says.
He credits the other conductors in the show, lighting director Bryan Duncan and artist Paul Johnson, who designs the iconic 24-foot-tall and 176-foot-wide mural, for making the concert an anticipated annual event.
“It really is quite an adventure to make this all work,” Clausen says. “It’s a tapestry weaving music, text and visuals to make a seamless flow.”
While the audience remains silent through the entire performance, he still hears how moving the experience is for attendees.
“Every year, all I hear is sniffling. I expect I’ll need to hold on this one last time,” he says. “The hardest thing will be to get through the compline (the ringing of the bells to signal the end of the concert) that one last time.”
As is tradition among the conductors, he won’t bow, even in his final Christmas concerts.
“I just don’t want to be made a fuss over. It’s the music that will speak,” he says. “At the end, I just want to let it be.”
If you go
What: Concordia Christmas Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8
Where: Memorial Auditorium at Concordia College, Moorhead
Info: Tickets are $22