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Saint Mary’s Hosts 42nd Annual Madrigal Dinners

| Friday, December 5, 2014

Saint Mary’s traditional Christmas-themed madrigal dinners will transform the north lounge of Regina Hall into a medieval banquet hall for students and members of the community Dec. 5 to 7, director of special events Richard Baxter said. Now in its 42nd year, the weekend-long event provides an alternate mode of celebration and preparation during the Advent season, Baxter said.

The Saint Mary’s Department of Music organizes and performs an array of Renaissance and madrigal-oriented music courtesy of the 21 members of the Saint Mary’s Women’s Choir and its director Nancy Menk, professor of music. Menk, who has conducted the madrigals for 31 years, said the dinners have changed over time in style but not in spirit.

For the 40th anniversary of the madrigals two years ago, the  show’s script and song list changed, Menk said, though some traditional favorites remained.

“Some of the music is really traditional, so we do it every year,” Menk said. “We always have a returning group of seniors every year, but we sort of have a basic group of repertoire.

“I try to pick repertoire that is from the Renaissance or at least sounds like it’s from the Renaissance. I want all the pieces to be like Christmas, and there aren’t really a whole lot of madrigals that are about Christmas. We at least want to go with an image of earlier times.”

The dinners attempt to recreate a medieval ball at Christmastime, complete with a toast and a real boar’s head, Baxter said.

“They actually have a boar’s head that they parade around,” Baxter said. “They do it every year. They serve different courses. There are jugglers [and] depending on the weather, they juggle pins outside. There are dancers that perform medieval dance. By the end of the evening, hopefully [the audience] got a sense of what the evening’s about.”

The dinners also feature a is a holiday feast that includes prime rib, roasted potatoes, glazed carrots, Waldorf salad, wassail and cheesecake with flaming cherries, Baxter said.

Along with the food, Baxter said she believes the music makes the dinners special.

“[The choir doesn’t] just stand and sing,” Baxter said. “They’ll move around the whole area. You won’t even recognize it when we finish it. It’s a big production. It’s far more focused and controlled. It’s not like being on the street, it’s more concentrated. It is like you’re time traveling.”

Baxter said the madrigal dinners only work with the help of an entire team of people.

“There are maybe probably 25 members of the choir and another 15 servers, so there’s probably 50 people back there making it work,” Baxter said. “We’re there making sure everything’s smooth.”

Though preparing the same music every year may seem a little mundane, Menk said the constant change of students is what delights her most.

“I love to watch them get excited about it,” Menk said. “By the time we do it, it’s fun. The atmosphere at the madrigal dinners is always so festive that it’s easy to see why so many continue to make this a part of their annual holiday celebrations.

“At every performance, when I step into the hall and see the beautiful candlelit setting and the looks of anticipation on our patrons’ faces, I feel really proud of what we have offered to our community for 42 years.”

Some of the event’s most popular features include the jugglers and the procession of the boar’s head, but everyone always enjoys something unique and different, Menk said.

Since first taking over the production, Menk said she has readjusted and perfected the show for each year’s audiences.

“Now we have a formula that works, we don’t even have a meeting beforehand,” she said. “The choreographer does her thing, and I do my own thing, and in the end it all comes together.”

The madrigal dinners are Saint Mary’s way of reaching out to the community beyond campus during the Advent season, Menk said.

“It’s sort of our gift to the community,” Menk said. “There are some companies in town that use it as their Christmas party. There’s people who come every year. I know a lot of our alumnae who were in it come back to see it. I think it’s worth the money.”

“It’s the best way to really prepare yourself for Christmas,” Baxter said. “It slows you down. It puts you in the mind frame of others. It just helps you get away from all the awful noise you get [during the holidays].”

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