Dr. Peter Dennee: Behind the Scenes of Christmas Festival

Dr. Peter Dennee, a Carthage alum, is a familiar and friendly face on campus. He is also the mastermind behind Christmas Festival every year. This event spreads Christmas cheer with wonderful music, readings and Carthage’s annual Service of Light, when the A.F. Siebert Chapel is filled with candlelight. But all of this would not be possible without Father Christmas himself, Dr. Peter Dennee.

Aside from being an amazing professor and director, he is also a composer. His new piece, Veni, Domine, et noli tardare will premiere at Christmas Festival this December and will be sung by the Carthage Women’s Ensemble. But how does he manage to plan and organize an event as iconic as Christmas Festival while simultaneously holding a coloring contest for the performers involved? Continue reading for a behind-the-scenes look at this year’s Christmas Festival “From Heaven Above To Earth You Come.”            

HC: What did you get your degree in from Carthage?

PD: In 1986 I earned a B.A. in choral and instrumental music education.

HC: What other schools did you attend and what degrees did you receive?

PD: In 1990, I earned a Master of Music in music education from The Johns Hopkins University—Peabody Conservatory of Music. In 1996, I earned a Doctor of Musical Arts in choral music from Arizona State University.

HC: How did you find your way back to Carthage College?

PD: While working on my doctorate at Arizona State, I had the opportunity to work for the graduate college on a project called Preparing Future Faculty. Through this project, we introduced other doctoral students to the various institution types in academe (from large research universities to community colleges). We explored the roles and responsibilities of faculty at these various institution types. This is when I began to reflect on my own education. I had the opportunity to study at three very different types of institutions—a large, research university, a small conservatory and a small, church-affiliated liberal arts college. This is when I decided my goal was to work at a college like Carthage. Prior to coming to Carthage, I was working at a research university and had realized that that was not a good fit for me. I learned of a position opening at Carthage and applied. 19 years after leaving Carthage as an undergraduate, I found myself returning as a professor. I'm now in the midst of my 13th year here!

Photo by Erica Snoza 

HC: What choirs do you direct at Carthage?

PD: I conduct the Carthage Chorale and the Carthage Women's Ensemble.

HC: When were you put in charge of organizing Christmas Festival?

PD: I became the Festival Director in the fall of 2007.

HC: What is your process for picking songs for the choirs you direct?

PD: As anyone who's seen my office knows, I'm literally surrounded by music (in print form). I'm always perusing new scores to find music that moves me and that I think will move ensemble participants as well as audiences. Around mid-summer, I start to narrow my lists of potential music for Christmas Festival and other events. 

HC: Do you meet and collaborate with the directors of other ensembles to pick the songs every musician will participate in?

PD: Each ensemble director chooses the music they feel will work best with their ensemble. I share the theme with the directors and offer some general guidelines for selecting music, but I trust my colleagues to know what works best for their groups and for the Festival performance. For the combined choral pieces, Dr. García-Novelli and I collaborate on the selection of these pieces.

HC: How do you pick the theme of the show every year? What is this year's theme?

PD: This year's theme, "From Heaven Above to Earth You Come," was taken directly from the title of the work we will premiere. Other years, I have used suggestions from my colleagues or taken a quote from an audience carol or piece that one of the choirs is performing. I keep a list of potential themes on a spreadsheet on my computer.

HC: What is your process for picking the carols?

PD: I try and select audience carols that connect with the theme of the Festival. This year, the theme is "From Heaven Above to Earth You Come," so many of the carols carry forward the theme of Jesus coming to Earth. For the last several years, the last three carols have remained the same. I feel that having these carols together with the Service of Light creates a tradition for all participants and those who return annually as audience members.

HC: When do you start planning for Christmas Festival every year?

PD: As soon as Christmas Festival ends!

HC: Since you are premiering a new piece you wrote at Christmas Festival this year, what was your vision for that piece? 

PD: I searched for a liturgical Latin text that connected with the Christmas Festival theme. The text I chose comes from a traditional text that is chanted in the Catholic Church on the fourth Sunday in Advent. I've been interested in composing a work that uses a tonality other than major or minor and settled on the Phrygian dominant scale. The majority of the piece is based on this scale which, to many, has a Middle Eastern sound to it. At the time I was composing, I was listening to and studying some of the music of Béla Bártok and was influenced by his use of mixed meter and polyrhythms and tried to incorporate some of that the piece. Ultimately, I wanted a piece that exuded lots of energy and would be fun to sing.

HC: How do you figure out the logistics of where everyone will stand and the order of the show?

PD: There are slight variations in the program every year. I try and move the instrumental and choral ensembles around to different parts of the program. My goal is to have seamless transitions from one ensemble to the next. The audience carols provide opportunities to move ensembles around. Having the Women's Ensemble perform a short piece in the balcony also allows for unnoticed movement of people in the main performance space. 

HC: You include a coloring page at the end of every Christmas carol music packet for each performer. Do you design the famous coloring page that every performer knows and loves?

PD: I do not design the coloring page. I keep a file of coloring pages on my computer. I find them from various sources throughout the year and then choose one that I like and that I think students will like.

“From Heaven Above To Earth You Come” will be held in the A.F. Siebert Chapel December 1st-3rd.

Rep image courtesy of Noelle Jay