Hark! A Topeka Christmas Spectacular

Christmas, Yeah!

On the weekend before Christmas, a small group of musicians from around the country traveled to Topeka, Kansas, and joined with local musicians to prepare and perform a fundraiser concert for local organizations. These photos chronicle two days of preparation for Hark! A Topeka Christmas Spectacular.

Now four years old, the event initially featured exclusively local musicians and served as a fundraiser for the music department at Topeka’s Hayden Catholic High School. Building on a partnership with the Notre Dame Club of Eastern Kansas, Hark! expanded in its second year when Hayden alumna Michelle Letourneau—the daughter of organizers Edward and Lisa Letourneau who, at the time, was a senior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in music performance—asked some musician friends from Notre Dame to help with the show.

Michelle Letourneau (oboe) during a Saturday afternoon sound check at the Ramada Inn.

By the concert’s third year, Hark! moved from a music room at Hayden to a local country club and added a second beneficiary, The Marian Clinic, which provides affordable medical and dental services to people with low incomes. In its fourth incarnation this year, Hark! grew yet again, moving to a ballroom at the Ramada Inn in downtown Topeka.

Dana DeVlieger (trumpet) and Hal Melia (piano, vocals) discuss an arrangement with Erinn Renyer (cello).
In addition to leading the Friday rehearsal with Dana, Hal spent the day substituting for Erik Jensen (piano), currently a senior at Notre Dame, who took a final exam on Friday morning.

Preparation for Hark! began mid-summer when artistic directors Dana DeVlieger and Hal Melia started designing the program for the December concert.

After setting a program featuring a variety of traditional and popular Christmas songs, Hal and Dana prepared unique arrangements for each piece, accounting for an eclectic ensemble that includes vocals, trumpets, oboe, flute, and cello. The arrangements balanced the wide range of playing abilities represented in the group, leveraging the skills of professional musicians and talented amateurs alike.

Once they finalized arrangements, Hal and Dana digitally distributed parts to the other nineteen members of the ensemble, allowing everyone to practice individually before the relatively short rehearsal on the day before the show.

Dana and Hal discuss staging and other issues before leading the group through a final walkthrough on Saturday afternoon.

A full Friday of rehearsal preceded the Saturday concert. Recent Notre Dame alumni participating in the show traveled to Topeka on Thursday and stayed with the Letourneau family. From mid-morning to late afternoon on Friday, the Notre Dame musicians worked with Topeka musicians to rehearse each piece. The day concluded with a complete run-through of the concert.

The group rehearses in a music room at Hayden that served as the venue for the first two concerts.
Michelle and Cat Samson (flute) read through their parts.
During a break, Kelsey McManus (percussion), reviews her reading for a spoken word segment, a new dynamic for this year’s show.

The program has evolved over the years to take advantage of the unique skills that each member brings to the ensemble. In addition to singing, Notre Dame alumna and and Kansas native Kirsten Milliard uses her talents as a dancer to add choreography to a few pieces each year. This year, at the request of Dana and Hal, other members of the ensemble stepped away from their instruments and performed short readings during the concert.

Kirsten Milliard (dance, vocals) practicing the choreography that she designed.
Ryan Belock (percussion, vocals) practices reading his assigned piece.
Cat and Michelle discuss somebody’s mistake with Caleb Hendrixson (clarinet).

Amidst the practice, of course, the rehearsal was also a part of the reunion of friends and musicians at the heart of the weekend. After graduation, the Notre Dame alumni in the group who did not stay in Indiana dispersed to states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia. Although many members of the ensemble spent hours each day playing in music groups during theirs years as students, this concerts now serves as a rare opportunity to focus on music. Even during the weekend’s long rehearsals, it was easy to see everyone’s joy at once again making music together.

While Cat rehearses, Hal takes a break to distract the percussionists.
During the Saturday sound check, the percussionists (from left) Erik Jensen, Brett Ensor, and Kelsey McManus attempt to out-d0 each other with creative auxiliary percussion improvisation underneath Dana’s trumpet solo.

The weekend also provided a chance to continue building the relationships that grow stronger each year between the talented musicians from Topeka and the musicians who travel from all over the country. This year’s Hark! program included a renewed emphasis on integrating local and out-of-town musicians into the same pieces, despite the challenges to integration posed by distance and limited opportunities to rehearse as a group.

In the foreground, Notre Dame alumni Hal and Cat perform with Topeka native Allison Enneking (vocals).

Hal, Cat, and Allison review one of Erik Jensen’s piano pieces.
Brett Ensor (guitar, percussion) makes final notes in his music.

On the day of the performance, the group spent the day at the Ramada Inn, transforming a hotel ballroom into a performance space. Once everyone helped to unload the equipment and prepare the stage, Hal and Dana reviewed sections of music with the group before leading everyone in a thorough walkthrough of the concert.

After only a few short hours working as a group and becoming familiar with the program, the concert began.

Dana DeVlieger on stage at the Ramada Inn.
Once again, a full house.

Like its predecessors, the fourth performance of Hark! A Topeka Christmas Spectacular brought together friends and family from across the country to celebrate Christmas one of the best ways that we know how: with music. How the concert will continue to evolve from year to year remains uncertain in the face of burgeoning careers, changing relationships, and dwindling musical opportunities, but in the real present and recent past it has been a remarkable Christmas celebration for all involved.