On Dec. 1 and 2, the Simpson College Madrigal Choir hosted their biannual Madrigal Dinner, which showcases the hard work and dedication of each member of the choir.
For junior Brandon Louis, being apart of the performance is something he calls an “unbelievable” experience.
“While you’re in the Madrigal Dinner it’s really exciting,” Louis said. “You can remember how much fun it was, but you just can’t quite get that feeling when you preform any other time. It’s one of those performances. It changes you a lot more than you think it would.”
Louis will be performing in his second Madrigal Dinner this year, as he was involved with the choir his freshmen year as well. On top of that, he has been a part of every show the music department has put on since his first year here.
“There are tons of other performances I’ve had and they feel great, those are unforgettable, but it’s just something completely different, because it takes you to a completely different time and you’re there longer than you would be for any other show,” Louis said.
Founded and directed by Professor Emeritus of Music Dr. Robert Larsen, the Madrigal Dinner has been a significant and successful event from the start.
Larsen has been at Simpson since 1957 and served as Chairman of the Department of Music for 33 years. He teaches piano, music, history and conducting, along with planning the Madrigal Dinner.
Larsen is responsible for conducting the performance, writing the entire script and picking out the music and instrumental items.
“He’s the evil genius behind the Madrigal Dinner,” Louis said. “Without him it would probably be a completely and total disaster. He plans everything and he’s always 20 steps ahead of everyone.”
“A lot of schools do madrigal dinners, but they aren’t quite as long as ours,” Louis said. “They’re not as extravagant, when it comes to the decorations and things like that.”
The dinner is a three hour-long performance, featuring two and a half hours of the choir singing along with some solos, instrumental interludes and a short play.
“A lot goes into it, it’s not just that one choir,” Louis said. “The entire department gets involved. It’s like an opera production in that it is a lot of different forces coming together.”
In addition to the 20 to 30 students in the Madrigal Choir, the band, as well as other members of the music department, get involved. The band learns to play Renaissance instruments, which they don’t normally play.
This is different from most schools, where it’s usually just the choir with the help of a few others.
Becoming a part of this choir happens through a different auditioning process than the other four choirs. Rather than auditioning individually, students audition all at once.
Everyone shows up, learns two songs and then sings together.
“That’s pretty unique for a choir audition,” Louis said. “If you don’t sound good with the people around you then you can’t be in it.”
This is what makes the Madrigal Choir the most selective choir.
The choir learns up to 150 songs total to be sung during the dinner. Having students with experience can be helpful during the rehearsal process.
This year there are about six students in the choir who have the experience of doing the dinner in the past; compared to last year when there were around 15.
“All of this semester we’ve been working on the music,” Louis said. “Last year the group started at the end of second semester, beginning some songs that we usually do for the dinner. That way the people that are coming back to the group would have a head start.”
Louis was one these who had a head start from the year before.
“This time around it’s a lot more fun because I’ve done most of the music before,” Louis said.
As a result, he didn’t have to spend as much time learning the music on his own-allowing him to go about this year with a much more relaxed mentality.
The choir as whole did have extra rehearsals this year, since most of the group was new to the dinner.
“We went about it differently and focused a lot more throughout the entire semester, instead of piling it all on at the end,” Louis said.
To fully prepare for the dinner, Great Hall, where the dinner is located, is completely transformed for the evening and the choir students are in charge of setting up all the decorations. Other than the stage, the whole room is lit up by candlelight. Renaissance decorations are displayed as well as a birdcage with doves.
As tradition, the choir dresses in Renaissance attire, which is the time period the show takes place in.
Another tradition is the performance being Christmas themed. Renaissance and Christmas music are what the dinner focuses on, with a mix of a few other pieces.
The group has endured months of regular rehearsals three times a week, before moving into three-hour nightly rehearsals.
The huge time commitment to the show is the reason it’s only put on every other year.
“It’s a lot and if we had to do it every year I don’t think people would survive,” Louis said. “It’s pretty insane.”
The dinner is done the same year the choir goes on their European tour, which makes for time and financial commitments of the students.
“It’s really stressful at first and then after the hard work is done, the actual performing and getting it all together is really exciting,” Louis said. “The entire semester you’re used to just singing these songs knowing that we’re doing them at the dinner. Then you get the script and you instantly become someone else for three hours, that’s really cool.”