The Concordia College Christmas concert began 80 years ago. A few years after the annual event started, the conductor decided a large canvas should hung behind the choir to improve acoustics. The art department added color and a simple design and a concert tradition was born.
The artwork evolved over the years, making the acoustic backdrop an artistic complement to the music.
“It's the most important thing I do, and at the end of my life it will have been the most important thing i've contributed in my life.”David Hetland
In 1965 a college freshman named David Hetland helped paint the concert mural. A few years later he was designing the colorful panels. Hetland loved working with a large canvas, and he created ever more complex murals for more than 30 years.
The need for a fresh approach each year was a lesson learned the first year he designed the mural, Hetland explained in an interview a few years ago. The artwork had just been installed and Hetland was standing in the back of the auditorium, when two students walked by.
"And the freshman looked up at the painting and she said, 'Oh wow.' And the upperclassman looked up and said, 'Oh yeah, they put that thing up every year.' At that moment I decided I needed to work extra hard to be sure there was some noticeable difference from year to year," recalled Hetland.
When he died Easter Sunday 2006 at age 58, Hetland was already working on the design for this year's concert. His plan was to base the mural on an advent calendar. Concordia College Lighting Director Bryan Duncan used that theme to create a tribute to Hetland.
Duncan looked at about 6,000 slides of murals from the past 40 years and selected 30 which will be projected onto a large white backdrop during the concert.
"It's a daunting task to put this all together and as David would say, not screw it up," says Duncan. "It's still the Christmas concert. There's still a piece of David in this concert and certainly as I was putting this together I could tell David was around going, 'No, you want that picture.'"
Duncan says high resolution projection equipment will show audiences some of the detail for which Hetland was famous.
David Hetland and Conductor Rene Clausen collaborated for 20 years on the music and art for the Concordia Christmas concerts. Hetland would jokingly ask if the choir was providing background music.
"That was the running joke between us for 20 years', 'There's music for this too? It's nice to have some background music for the mural presentation.' I always got that from David with a wry smile," says Clausen.
Rene Clausen says the mural design often sprang from Hetland's mind when the two talked about the theme for the concert over lunch. Hetland would grab a napkin and start sketching a basic design that would eventually cover several muslin panels 20 feet high.
Hetland used a paint-by-number scheme to achieve a stained-glass look, and his system allowed volunteers to do much of the painting. More than a hundred people spent evenings and weekends painting the mural every fall.
The theme of this year's concert is 'On Our Way Rejoicing.' That's also the title of a Concordia Christmas concert history David Hetland compiled.
Rene Clausen says this concert marks a time of transition and a tribute to a man who saw his artistic talent as a gift from God he was compelled to share with others.
"I'm sure he would feel the inner light and warmth and pride of this honor we are bestowing on him, but at the same time he would want to make sure it's good," says Clausen with a chuckle. "If I knew David it was to make sure whatever we did was of excellent quality which represented everything David did."
David Hetland created a variety of liturgical art in his Fargo studio. One of his pieces was presented to Pope John Paul, and his stained-glass art adds color to churches and public buildings across the country. But in an interview a few years ago, Hetland admitted a special connection to the Christmas murals.
"It's the most important thing I do, and at the end of my life it will have been the most important thing I've contributed in my life. I'm just thrilled to have stumbled into it and to be a part of it," said Hetland.
The Concordia College Christmas concert is December 1st, 2nd and 3rd in Moorhead, with two performances December 7th at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.