The St. Thomas Choirs, Singers, Orchestra an Wind Ensemble perform A St. Thomas Christmas: Dawning Light, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis on December 4, 2022.

St. Thomas Christmas Concert Celebrates Mary Agnes McQuinn

The 36th annual St. Thomas Christmas concert, “Reflections of Gratitude,” is dedicated in memory of Mary Agnes McQuinn, beloved philanthropist and music lover. The concert, to be held on Dec. 3 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, features over 200 student performers in Chamber Singers, Concert Choir, Donne Unite, Symphonic Wind Ensemble, and String Orchestra. Brass Choir and Guitar Ensemble will perform a prelude. Tickets are still available, and you can receive a 50% discount Black Friday through Cyber Monday by using the code USTChristmas. All event proceeds support students’ international learning and performing opportunities in the arts.

To learn more about the significance of the Christmas concert, we had a conversation with Dr. Matthew George, John Ireland Distinguished Professor of Music and Director of Bands and Orchestras at St. Thomas.

Can you talk about the tradition of the St. Thomas Christmas concert, how long we’ve been doing it and any special memories you might have?

MG: The Christmas concert has been an annual tradition since 1988, growing in popularity until 2007 when it was moved to its current venue, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The change of venue allowed for an expanded staging and the addition of our instrumental ensembles. We are grateful that we can now accommodate the many people for whom the concert has become a Christmas calendar fixture: university students, faculty and staff, alumni, their families and friends, and the public.

I have so many special memories of our concerts over the years because there have been so many wonderful students who have graced the stage since 2007, performing great music at a very high level. We’ve commissioned several new works for this event (including for 2023) and our students have had the opportunity to work directly with the commissioned composers. Perhaps the greatest memory, though, is the very first concert we did for national television. That was new to all of us, and the opportunity to demonstrate the incredible talents of our students nationwide was a spectacular opportunity for music at St. Thomas and for the university at large.

Tell us a little more about the new music commissioned for the 2023 concert.

MG: Internationally known composer, Jack Stamp, was commissioned to write a main work for the Christmas concert this year, “The Shepherd’s Faith.” It is dedicated to Mary Agnes McQuinn. The work is a massive piece employing the instrumental forces of both our String Orchestra and Symphonic Wind Ensemble along with all the choirs on stage (Chamber Singers, Concert Choir and Donne Unite). The piece utilizes two lesser-known carols but is set spectacularly with exciting rhythms and color. This piece will close the concert followed by a final audience singalong of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Jack also wrote a short fanfare based on “The Shepherd’s Faith” that will open the program. When hearing more about Mary Agnes and her advocacy of our program, Jack was inspired to write another piece for our String Orchestra based on the English version of “Away in a Manger.” This too is dedicated to Mary Agnes.

The 2023 concert is indeed dedicated to the memory of Mary Agnes McQuinn, who passed away on March 29 this year. What has the support of the McQuinn family meant for music programs at St. Thomas over the years?

MG: Mary Agnes and her family had been attending the Christmas concert for a number of years, starting when it was being held in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas and continuing when we moved to Orchestra Hall. She was such a kind and passionate person, and I got to know her and her husband Al quite well. Mary Agnes and Al were so taken by the grandeur of the Christmas concert, they felt a need for others beyond the university to witness the event as well – and so the idea of doing a national television production was born. After the success of the first broadcast, they decided to provide additional funding for future television productions.

What does an experience like this – being onstage at such an important and beautiful venue – mean for St. Thomas students?

MG: This entire experience, that of the Christmas concert, is a unique experience. Many consider this the flagship public event for the university. The acoustics of Orchestra Hall are extraordinary, and having the chance to perform for such large audiences in such a wonderful space is very special for our students. The rigor involved in pulling this concert off is significant, and the students spend a great deal of time and energy putting it all together. On the day of the event, students will spend about 15 hours preparing, rehearsing, and finally performing. Despite the hard work and time commitment, I am always amazed by how much they look forward to it after having done it in previous years. It’s a remarkable experience all around.

2021 St. Thomas Christmas Concert Broadcast From PBS