This past weekend the Hope College Music Department put on one of their most important annual traditions, which has been a fixture at Hope for over fifty years: the Christmas Vespers service. Part group prayer, part concert, Vespers draws crowds from across the Midwest and is recorded every other year for broadcast on public television. For last year’s Vespers, the Music Department had to get creative — rather than have a live performance, they recorded different speakers and ensembles and streamed the service on YouTube due to COVID-19 concerns. Though the college continues to implement COVID safety measures such as mask mandates, the 2021 Vespers services occurred in person in Dimnent Chapel. Two different services were held, one on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and one on Sunday at 3:00 p.m., as well as separate recording sessions for the later television broadcast. This was a marked change from previous years — since 1978, there have been four Vespers services. The decrease this year was intended to give students more time to focus on school work.
Three different choirs participated in creating the music under the direction of Choral Director Eric Reyes: Chapel Choir, College Chorus, and Spera. The Hope Orchestra, conducted by Assistant Professor of Music, Dr. Christopher Fashun, also played a piece of their own and provided accompaniment for several choral pieces. The program included traditional carols such as “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night” and the traditional Vespers closing song “And the Child Grew” as well as more challenging choral pieces. A particular draw this year was the debut of “Tu Señor Eres Nuestro Escudo,” a piece written specially for the Hope College Chapel Choir by music professor Dr. Benjamin Krause and English professor Dr. Pablo Peschiera. Students provided organ preludes and postludes. Many pieces represented cooperation between the ensembles, with choirs singing together songs that they had rehearsed separately or the orchestra accompanying singers. Chapel Choir member Bryce Robinson (’23) remarked on the selection of songs, saying, “We’re watching the evolution of Christmas — we have very old carols. We have modern songs. “Dominus Vobiscum” [a choral piece performed by Chapel Choir] is a mixture of English and Creole, which is very unique. The traditional carols are great, they’re what I think of when I think of Christmas, but I like that we have more modern songs. Stepping outside of my own tradition and singing something new is fun.”
Robinson expressed excitement about his first Vespers as a member of Chapel Choir, but singing in an ensemble is not all glamor, it would seem. What goes into creating Vespers? “Sweat!” he says. “It’s really hot in Dimnent. Also, a lot of cooperation between the choirs and orchestra, because when you’re rehearsing with your own group, sometimes you forget the other groups are going to be there.” All ensembles rehearsed multiple times per week before the event, and in the week leading up to it they stepped up their practice even more to get in step with each other and get used to the environment of the chapel. The building was decorated on the inside with creative lighting and flowers, and the choir and orchestra sat in formation on the stage.
To get a better understanding of how a Vespers service comes together, The Anchor talked to several students from different ensembles to ask them about their experiences and opinions. One of the most common themes that emerged when asking these musicians about their thoughts on Vespers was an appreciation for the communal and worship aspects of the service. Violinist Emily Dykhouse (’23) says, “Having performed in Hope College Orchestra for two years and College Chorus for one year, I love that Vespers represents a creative coming-together of many ensembles with worship as a common goal.” Her fellow orchestra member Blade Gates (’22), a percussionist, echoes this sentiment: “Vespers is one of my favorite long-lasting Hope College traditions. We come together, perform music and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.” While not all students who help to make Vespers a reality are practicing Christians, many who are find great meaning in the worship aspects of the service.
Considering the circumstances of last year’s Vespers and the rising COVID caseload in Ottawa County, there was some concern about how the ongoing pandemic might impact the atmosphere of the service, but despite some extra difficulties (“It feels like I’m eating my mask,” Robinson says) the ensemble members seem for the most part optimistic. “The return of in-person Vespers this year has been absolutely beautiful,” says Chapel Choir singer and soloist Emma Clark (’22). “I am so grateful to be part of this inspiring concert, and to be able to spread some Christmas cheer to a live audience again.” Robinson, too, agreed that “Even with the masks, we still get to celebrate the Nativity with the people we love, so there’s joy and happiness getting to share music with not just the choirs we work with but with the greater Holland community. Vespers is locally famous, so to be a part of something that’s known across the country — that’s great.” When asked how he might want to see the service develop after COVID concerns are less pressing, he suggested, “Maybe an inter-Christian exchange? I’m part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I’ve had a very good relationship with Father Nick, the Catholic priest on campus, but I don’t see a lot of cultural exchange within the Christian religion. Maybe having other priests or faith leaders in the community could build cooperation between us.”
The passion and dedication of the students and faculty who work on Vespers are clear from the way that they speak about their work in preparing this year’s music selections. For those who were hoping to attend the service but were unable to get tickets, a recording of the event will be broadcast by WGVU and aired on PBS on December 24 and 25. The college also hopes to post this recording online on the official website.