A young woman playing the clarinet in an orchestra wears a Santa hat.

PBS Wisconsin presents ‘Holiday Concert from UW-Eau Claire’ – read a Q&A with the concert’s executive director

November 28, 2023 Tara Lovdahl Leave a Comment

PBS Wisconsin continues its tradition of celebrating holiday concerts around the state with the Holiday Concert from UW-Eau Claire. This spectacular musical event, performed by various ensembles from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, will air on PBS Wisconsin at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 24. The concert will also be available to online streaming at pbswisconsin.org.

This will be Dr. John R. Stewart’s seventh year as the executive director of UW-Eau Claire’s Holiday Concert. In anticipation of the event, PBS Wisconsin spoke with Stewart about working with student musicians and preparing for UW-Eau Claire’s Holiday Concert.

A college orchestra and choir poses on stage for a group portrait with blue lights and snowflakes decorating the backdrop.

PBS Wisconsin: Are all the members of the Holiday Concert music majors, or are some just student musicians?

John Stewart: Of the five choirs that are performing, I think about 50% of the musicians are music majors, and the other 50% are non-[music] majors across campus.

PBS Wisconsin: What’s the chemistry of the groups like?

Stewart: All of the groups are like big families. The non majors bring a different energy because it’s just the joy of getting to make music together. For some of the music majors, sometimes it can be a grind because of degree requirements. I don’t think the students are ever negative, but perhaps they’re a bit more fatigued. This is a concert that all the students look forward to each year. 

The great thing about our campus is that music is such an important part of it. You can’t walk around campus without finding somebody that’s involved in one of our ensembles. We have three concert bands, four jazz ensembles, five choirs and the Blugold Marching Band.

PBS Wisconsin: What’s your favorite part about working with the students?

Stewart: The joy that they bring every day. They work really hard. They’re great human beings. I love to see the light bulbs come on from time to time when I present them with a challenge that they can’t do right away and then to see them work and accomplish that challenge. 

And it’s great to see the pride that they take in what they do and the sense of community that they bring to the ensemble. They come in as strangers, and then they work over the next four years and become this tight knit family, which is really wonderful.

A young man plays tubular bells, or orchestral chimes, which are adorned with a red bow and green garland.

PBS Wisconsin: Do the students feel pressure when they perform for an audience as big as the one that attends the Holiday Concert? 

Stewart: Our students love to perform. In fact, they frequently ask us to do more. And we have to put the reins on and tell them “no” so we can help protect their time and allow them to be a student. I think if they could perform more, they would. 

I think all the ensembles look forward to this event because normally we are all so busy in our own areas, and the various ensembles don’t always get to hear their friends or colleagues in the other areas. So the orchestra students don’t always get to hear the bands or the choirs and vice versa. This is the one chance where we can all get together. I think they look forward to it because they get to hear and support their friends.

PBS Wisconsin: What does it mean to you and your students that this will be broadcast across the state?

Stewart: I think it’s pretty special. This is a great opportunity for us to showcase what our students can do to a bigger audience across the state. It can showcase the university, and for the Pablo Center, it can let the people on the eastern side of the state know about this wonderful state-of-the-art facility that we have. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.

And, in talking with Deb Piper (the TV show’s producer) and the PBS Wisconsin production team, I’m excited to see what happens from the production side with the lighting and sound. We are trying new things differently this year because of the broadcast. I’m excited about it.

A section of women sing in the UW-Eau Claire choir.

PBS Wisconsin: How has the Eau Claire Holiday Concert changed over the years?

Stewart: The last seven years have been interesting because we’ve transitioned from the Zorn Arena — which is a multipurpose space for everything from basketball games to concerts to graduation — to the Pablo Center.

Now that we’re in a smaller space, we’ve had to change the program because when we were in the old space we could fit everyone on stage for the finale, “The Joy of Christmas,” which was a custom piece written for us by a former faculty member named Ross Hastings. This involved the Wind Symphony, the University Orchestra and all the choirs. But, now that we’re at the Pablo Center, all the musicians don’t fit on stage anymore.

With the support of the foundation, we commissioned one of our alumni, Kyle Newmaster, to write a new finale called “Winter’s Song: A musical setting of winter poems by Max Garland.” Kyle used poetry of a Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Max Garland, around the theme of winter in the Midwest to try to help make things a little bit more inclusive because the original finale was called “The Joy of Christmas.” There was nothing wrong with the original finale, but we wanted to make everybody feel welcome to the Holiday Concert. 

And every year, the choir directors, the orchestra director and I sit down to determine the rest of the program. We have more flexibility because we are a public rather than a religious-based institution. Especially in the choral repertoire, we will perform some sacred music. But then we try to find some lighter holiday classics or music that’s just associated with the holiday season. We’ve been working to select repertoire that is more inclusive.

We change the music each year, but always include a few Holiday Classics such as “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson. This year, the audience will hear music by George Frideric Handel, James Stephenson, Robert W. Smith, Julie Giroux, Rene Clausen and more.

Images of the 2022 Eau Claire Holiday Concert courtesy of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. Photo credit: Bill Hoepner, UW-Eau Claire Photographer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *