Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Out of the velvety darkness, three chimes break the silence. A rich, deep voice pronounces words of the gospel as the voices of hundreds of young men and women soar over the multitude who fill the Concordia Fieldhouse.
And in one of those seats, as she has for 60 years, Kathy Benson sits back to absorb the experience that – for her – breathes life into the spirit of the season. “For a time, in my mind,” she says, “all is right with the world.”
Thousands will line up to witness four performances of the 92nd annual Concordia Christmas Concert this weekend … then hundreds more next Thursday, when 350 singers and musicians will recreate it in Orchestra Hall. It’s a magical tradition that melds youthful talent with text and tune into a spectacle that’s long been known as “Concordia’s Christmas gift to the community.”
But not all who make the magic stand in the spotlight. Kathy is one of them. She has accompanied the choirs on their travels – both the Minneapolis holiday dates they’ve performed since 1975, and on their annual late winter tours to every corner of the nation – for the past 18 years. While conductor René Clausen and his team concentrate on the music, as well as logistics and venues, she volunteers her time with the musicians themselves – a friendly, familiar leader of the corps who cheers them on, occasionally patches up their ills and encourages them to reflect on the gifts they bring to everyone who hears them.
“I’m a badly failed music major,” she laughs. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she grew up in a home infused with music. “But unlike my parents and brother, I just wasn’t gifted with a good voice. I really tried when I enrolled at Concordia. I quickly found there was more to it than I could manage to get together.” As a sophomore, then, she switched her studies to psychology and biology: “I decided that my role would be a music appreciator.”
And she fell in love with that part. After accepting a call to Trinity Lutheran Church in Pelican Rapids, her father soon heard about the nearby Moorhead college that excelled in music. “I came to my first Christmas concert when I was 14,” Kathy remembers. “My mother, brother and I sat in the car while my father did hospital visitations all afternoon. Then we rushed to the concert. We were just about the last to be seated.”
Through the rest of high school, through four years at Concordia and three more attending Fairview School of Nursing in the Twin Cities, those concerts remained the ritual that defined the Christmas spirit. After graduating from Fairview in 1967, she returned to the Concordia campus … and never left. She spent two years as director of the then-new East Complex residence hall before applying for the job she really wanted with Dr. Alf Borge, who ran the college health center. He hired her on the spot.
“I learned more from him than from nursing school,” she reflects. After Borge’s retirement, she became administrator of the health service. She retired last June, exactly 50 years after she began.
Music remained her passion. (“I’m a choral music groupie – a nerd,” she confesses.) Until 1986, the concerts she loved and the traveling entourage were managed by Kurt Wycisk, longtime conductor Christianson’s brother-in-law. His wife Elsa and Paul’s wife Eleanor accompanied the choirs as chaperones. “I watched Elsa and thought how much fun it would be,” Kathy says. “I even mentioned it offhandedly a time or two – ‘When you retire, I want your job.’”
Time passed. Christianson retired in 1986 and was replaced by René Clausen. Then, 18 years ago, choir manager Ted Horan broke his just before departing on the choir’s three-week spring concert tour. “They realized another adult along, and it needed to be a woman. Kathy was more than ready to step in. She has been on board ever since. “When I retired last summer, they asked if I’d continue,” she says. Her answer? Easy to guess.
While next week’s Christmas expedition to Orchestra Hall is far larger, with 350 singers and musicians packed into seven or eight buses, spring tours are a longer and more arduous undertaking. Then, 75 choir members travel on two buses for more than two weeks, sharing their music and the story of Concordia College across a different quadrant of the country every year.
Kathy’s nursing skills can be key to keeping the crew healthy and happy. “On rare occasions, I’ve accompanied someone to the emergency room for an injury or illness,” she reports. “It’s an arduous schedule, and a lot of young people in very cramped quarters for an extended period of time. Some thrive on it – others, not so much. We always seem to see a few cases of the ‘bus crabbies.’ I’ve been able to help a little with emotional support from time to time when they need someone to listen.”
As the mother of four grown sons and grandmother of 16, she loves spending time with young people. “That age – I love it,” she confesses. “In my 50 years, I’ve received so much more from them than I’ve given. Those young adults, for whatever reason, have let me knot their lives. That’s nothing but a gift.”
One of her missions, in fact, has been to convince them of what they have to give: “When we’re traveling, they often ask me to give the nightly devotions. I want them to know the gift they are to themselves and each other … and what they bring to every audience along the way. How they share their talents with those who come to hear them — that’s so very meaningful.”
After 60 years of Christmas concerts, the retired nurse still never tires of the experience. In past days you could have spotted her in the Cobber fieldhouse during every rehearsal, watching as the production takes shape and comes to life. She’ll be back for every concert this weekend, too.
“The melodies are wonderful. They always have been. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself drawing more from the text as well,” she muses. “That’s one thing I ask the choir members. Are you claiming those words for yourself?”
She speaks of a lyric that ran through her mind time and again as she faced her own health crisis several years ago. “It brought me through,” she says simply.
“The music, the words, the singers’ and musicians’ gifts, the experience from the very start to the three bells that signal the end of the concert …” Kathy reflects. “These are moments that feed my soul.”
The Concordia Christmas Concerts is performed at 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Concordia Fieldhouse, as well as at 6 and 8 p.m. next Thursday at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. For more information and tickets, go to https://concordiachristmas.universitytickets.com