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A Longstanding Tradition

With extensive metal scaffolding on either side of the stage, two videographers adjust cameras and aim them at the musicians below. A third cameraman is set up high above the back of the stage as the Crane Chorus sings in unison below. 

The audience, filling every available seat in the Hosmer Hall auditorium, looks to the stage as well, listening to the talented group of nearly 300 Crane students and professors performing during the annual Candlelight Concert.

A holiday tradition that began 100 years ago, the Crane Candlelight Concert continues to be a time-honored celebration of music and the holiday season.

2023 Crane Candlelight Concert photos:

Held this year on Dec. 3, the latest concert included special performances by the Giroux Honors Jazz Combo, the Crane Handbell Quartet, and the Crane Opera Ensemble. Guest conductor Dr. Mark Kligman presented two major works in honor of Hanukkah, one with the Crane Wind Ensemble and the other with the Crane Symphony Orchestra and Crane Chorus. Rounding out the concert, the orchestra and chorus collaborated on the world premiere of “The Night Before Christmas,” by Crane alumnus Shavon Lloyd ’19, who is currently a graduate student at The Juilliard School. 

“The Crane Candlelight Concert is a tradition that asks us to slow down and look for the light in the darkness. The giving of gifts is a tradition shared by many holidays, and we hope Candlelight serves as both a North Country tradition and a gift—a way to thank our entire community for another year of generous support.”

Crane School of Music Dean Dr. William Gibbons

The longstanding tradition of the Candlelight Concert at Crane can be traced back 100 years, to the last year of founder Julia E. Crane’s life. In 1922, the Normal Choral Society presented a Christmas concert for the first time, after moving their spring concert to coincide with the holidays. The then president of the Potsdam Normal School, Dr. Randolph Congdon, was so pleased with the holiday concert that he asked the group to continue the performance every year. During these early years, the audience joined in by singing traditional carols with the musicians. The concert was less formal at that time, and included community caroling, where the musicians would travel by sleigh to the homes of faculty members.

The 1924 concert was the first to be broadcast on the radio, WCAD, as the St. Lawrence University station was then known. In 1925, Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus was introduced, and remained a fixture for years to come, closing out one Christmas concert after the next. In 1931, under the leadership of Dr. Helen Hosmer, a Crane mixed chorus was introduced, combining the treble vocalists from the prestigious Phoenix Club (the oldest choral ensemble in the history of Crane) and talented tenor/bass vocalists at the school. One year later, on Dec. 18, 1932, the Crane Chorus made its official debut—the origin of the combined Crane Chorus and Crane Symphony Orchestra performances, featured annually in all modern-day Candlelight Concerts.

“For many years it had been the practice for students and townspeople to join in a ‘Christmas Sing’ for the holiday recess. Beginning in 1932, Crane Chorus prepared a few appropriate selections for performance before the community singing. The basic idea of these programs has continued each year although the performing group has changed from time to time,” wrote former Crane School of Music Dean Dr. Ralph Wakefield, in “A Brief History of The Crane School of Music (1986)".

photo of conductor
guest conductor Jan Meyerwitz rehearsing for the 1953 holiday concert

Although candles are not used in the Candlelight Concert today due to fire code restrictions, the name dates to 1938, when candles were first used in the processionals and recessionals for the Christmas Concert. Candles continued to be featured at the beginning and end of the concerts in the mid '40s. 

The tradition continued to take on special significance, especially during the turmoil of world events. In the annual holiday newsletter sent to all Crane students and alumni, the 1941 edition reflected on the inspiration the concert provided, even as the country had just entered World War II in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack:

“We listened with pride in our hearts to your December symphony concert. We felt a swell of emotion as many of you marched by us in our last carol and candle-light service. Some of us stood by while you taught the juveniles the age-old Yule carols… These experiences have knit us closely. In these tense days there will be need of courage, of unselfishness, of sacrifice; need for clear thinking and right doing. You have all these possessions.”

In 1945, the Crane Chorus featured Nadia Boulanger (the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe including the Boston, Philadelphia and BBC Symphonies) as guest conductor. That year marked the first time that Crane held a separate concert from the less formal Christmas Concerts of the past, and further resembled the Crane Chorus and Orchestra performances that are staged today.

Later, the performances began to incorporate music and traditions to mark Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, as well as global music inspiration—rounding out performances with collaborations with the West African Drum and Dance Ensemble, the Crane Jazz Ensemble and a range of visiting artists.

Today, the Candlelight Concert reaches an even broader audience through a partnership with PBS. Starting in 2001, WPBS-TV started professionally recording the concert in Hosmer Hall for national syndication. In 2015, Mountain Lake PBS took over, continuing the collaboration with Crane by recording each year’s performance and airing it along with a rotation of recent Candlelight Concerts televised every holiday season. The concerts are also syndicated to run on public television stations across the U.S. and Canada. Locally, North Country Public Radio records and airs the concert as part of its holiday line-up as well, a century after the first radio broadcast began.

And so, the tradition continues year after year, with new music, additional ensembles added to the program, and a broadcast-quality recording of each concert for public radio and public television. At the heart of it all is an impressive cohort of Crane student musicians, faculty, and guest artists who showcase a unique and festive annual holiday performance.

Article and photos by Jason Hunter, with additional research by Alexandra Jacobs Wilke