Drury Vespers Gives the Springfield Community a Chance to Focus on the Meaning of Christmas

Dec 25, 2017

During the days leading up to the holidays, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with all there is to do:  Gifts to buy, food to prepare, decorating to get done.  But a long-standing tradition in Springfield allows people to take an hour, de-stress and focus on the true meaning of the season.

Drury University has been presenting Vespers in Stone Chapel for more than 60 years.  Three choirs, Drury Singers, the Chamber Choir and the Chorale, combine to bring the community a concert filled with sacred music and readings from the Bible.  Instrumentalists perform on piano, organ and strings.

Dr. Jim Davidson, director of choral activities and music education at Drury, said the program is very traditional.

"We try to have some familiar carols and mix that in with music from all around the world and all different time periods," he said.  "We have a medieval carol that we're singing with the women's chamber choir and then we have some pieces that are brand new within the last decade or so."

Vespers is traditionally a service of evening prayers.  Drury presents it more in the style of a lessons and carols service, according to Davidson.  He said the free program is patterned after the King’s College service in Cambridge, England. 

Vespers has long been a way to start the holiday season, and it’s well attended.  In fact, Drury added a second performance this year.  Tickets for one were spoken for in ten minutes.  Tickets for the other were gone within an hour.

"Obviously, this is one of our best attended events.  It's one of our most revered traditions here at Drury," said Davidson.  "We hold this tradition very sacred here at Drury.  This is probably one of the most reverent events we do all year."

It takes some work and lots of practice to get ready for Vespers.  Choirs begin rehearsing in November.  There’s a lot of coordination that has to take place.  Professors are invited to serve as liturgists.  Tickets must be distributed.  And set up happens just before the event. 

At a rehearsal a few days before this year’s Vespers, Dr. Davidson was making sure choir members would be as ready as they could be for the actual performance.  But he ended the rehearsal by reminding the choir that Vespers has been part of Drury for more than half its history and that they were involved in something much bigger than themselves and this year’s choir.  “Let’s just enjoy what we do,” he told them. 

Dr. Jim Davidson Rehearses with the Drury Choir
Credit Michele Skalicky

Asher Tillman is a senior at Drury and was preparing to sing in his fourth Vespers program.  He said it’s a chance, as much as possible, to stop for a moment and focus on the Christmas season.

"This allows me to press the pause button, remind myself of what is meaningful to me, what does the Christmas season mean to me, how do I apply that to non Christmas season, and I just find that so beautiful to be able to revere something--to find reverence in something in the fast-paced motion of life," he said.

Being part of Vespers, he said, is "like a weight is lifted off my shoulders.  My heart beats faster, and it's just a swell of lovely mushy gushy emotions because, when you hear the sound surround you rather than just being in a choir room where it's escaping you, you really do feel that sense of community of many hearts beating as one and many voices coming together as one large voice."

Freshman Allison Hazlett attended high school just across the street at Central.  She’d wanted to attend Vespers but couldn’t get a ticket.  She had the CD though.  This year, she was able to attend—as a member of the Drury Singers.

"It really reminds you of why you do music.  Like Dr. Davidson said, it's not just a test to see if we know the notes, but it can really touch people and speak to them in ways that words can't," she said.

As Davidson chooses music for each year’s Vespers, he tries to find choral works that pair well with the message of the readings.

"So, normally I'll have one or two pieces paired with a reading, and some songs stay the same.  I try to keep at least two or three of the carols the same each year because I think the audience appreciates getting to participate and having familiar music, said Davidson.  "And then I try to switch the rest of it up every year."

He tries to find works that aren’t widely performed, but he also chooses traditional Anglican pieces—works by composers such as John Rutter and Jonathan Willcocks. 

He tells the students before they perform during Vespers that it’s much more than a normal choral concert.  It’s more meaningful than  that for a lot of people.