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All is Bright: A Concordia Christmas

March 22, 2021 - 11 minute read

Student Playing the Violin

Jeff Held, Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences, had been looking for opportunities to feature Concordia Irvine’s Christmas concert on television, and in 2020 the opportunity arrived in an unexpected way — with huge risk attached.

It began when Rev. Bil Hood, MA ’19, senior director of external relations and special events, heard that PBS SoCal was looking for more Orange County content — and original content of any kind — to broadcast during the pandemic. 

“We approached PBS SoCal to discuss producing new Christmas content for them, and it turns out the producer we worked with was a parent of a 2013 alumna who loved her time at Concordia,” Hood says. “The producer was very supportive of us through this entire process.” 

We approached PBS SoCal to discuss producing new Christmas content for them... the producer was very supportive of us through this entire process.

The music department had professionally recorded Concordia’s 2018 Christmas concert at Segerstrom Hall, but didn’t want to simply repackage an old performance for broadcast. In the middle of September, Hood, Held, Michael Busch, key members of the music team, and other parts of the university got together to hash out an ambitious plan. “We said, ’Why don’t we do a made-for-TV special?’” Hood recalls. 

The University had never done anything like that before, but the team was confident in the group of people assembled for the task. On October 1, the team pulled the trigger and decided to take the challenge of condensing a 10-month production process into two months. 

“We looked at it as an emergency opportunity,” Held says. “It was going to be a monumental effort to do it.” 

Their biggest concern: quality.

“If it looked cheesy or the music quality was bad and not reflective of the musicians we have, we would put out a projection of a mediocre program,” Held says. “There was that risk factor that weighed heavily on us all through the process. This was our shot to get it right.” 

COVID restrictions also crimped normal plans. String instruments were fine, as was recording in isolation booths in the recording studio. With extreme limitations on wind instruments and singing, the team mapped out an approach that deferred to guidelines while creating something new. 

two students playing bells

“We had good footage from two years ago and could show some of the big choir and orchestra stuff which we love to do, but the beauty of it is we had to think more creatively beyond what we would normally do in a Christmas concert,” Held says. “We looked at the footage from our Christmas production in Segerstrom Concert Hall and said, what are the highlights and best pieces from that, and what’s the next step?” 

Steve Mueller ’86, Chief Mission Officer and Dean of Christ College, was brought in to craft the narrative thread that would hold it all together. The theme — “All is Bright,” a line from “Silent Night” — had already been selected in anticipation of a regular Christmas concert. The team decided to stick with it. 

“I was thinking, ‘All is Bright’? Really? This year?” Mueller says with a laugh. “People were completely worn out, tired and frustrated in the midst of a trying time. ‘Bright’ was not a word I would have initially put on this Christmas celebration.” 

But as he considered how the song “Silent Night” was written, and how Scripture is filled with theme of light appearing in darkness, he realized the juxtaposition was perfect. 

“It was our context — we’re in darkness right now, but we do have light and hope in Christ,” Mueller says. 

The narrative arc he penned “told our community that even though 2020 seemed like one of the darkest years many of us had lived through, there is still a light, all is bright and Christmas is a time when we celebrate the light coming down to earth to live with us, love us and walk with us,” says Hood. 

Meanwhile, the show was going to cost money to produce. The team envisioned seeking donations from a number of donors to make up the $50,000 budget, but when supporter Charlie Zhang heard about the project, he stepped up right away and said, as Hood recalls, “We need to get this done, and get this done now. Our community needs it.” The Zhangs became one of two major supporters — along with Golden State Foods and CEO Mark Wetterau — whose generosity made the entire production possible. 

Shooting and recording dates were rapidly scheduled and students brought in to sing and play their musical parts for the original video aspect of the program. Many wondered if they would be proud of the end product. 

“When we first heard about this, I honestly thought this whole thing was going to be super-cheesy,” says Lauren Kruse ’21, a commercial music major and business minor, who leads the alto section in CUI’s choir. “I had no idea how it was going to turn out. My friends and I even made jokes about it. My fears were, when we were recording we had to stand in certain spots and the camera operators were getting really close-up shots. I felt like, ‘Oh, my gosh, do I have something in my nose?’ There’s a lot going on in your head in the middle of that. And with the restrictions I thought, ‘Okay, that’s going to look really funny.’ I knew the music sounded great, but I was worried that everyone would look awkward.” 

Joanna Rogers, the Community Engagement Liason for music, planned and organized the apparel, sending students a color palette to wear for each scene. 

“She was super-detailed with everything, which is why we ended up looking so good,” says Kruse. 

Concordia also is blessed with two extremely industrious music producers in Steve Young, Director of Commercial Music, and Mario Gonzalez, Audio Engineer. They mixed hundreds of tracks and hours of recorded audio into a final product aimed at showing off the musical capabilities of Concordia’s students. Students also were pleased to get firsthand experience in a first-rate music studio at CUI, which boasts the very best equipment available, comparable with any Hollywood studio or professional orchestra. Those recording sessions — in practice rooms and “iso booths” (meaning “isolation”) — were captured on video for the final product. 

“The restrictions enabled us to use more soloists than normal, which plays well on TV,” says Held. “It allowed us to be more up-close and offer more variety.” 

The team chose pop and bluegrass songs to mix things up. A group of alumni who make up the group “Tribe and Tongue” contributed a song. There was even a poetry reading, voiced by members of CUI’s Black Student Union, with a jazz quartet behind it. Kruse recalls the very first day of shooting, at 8 a.m. at Good Shepherd Chapel. She was the vocal soloist on “Joy to the World” and was eager to get started, but the team ended up waiting for their one instrumentalist to show up. 

“He had forgotten to set his alarm,” she says. It was, perhaps, their only down time because from that point on it was “go, go, go,” Kruse says. “I remember being on my toes a lot. I would have been exhausted if I didn’t love doing it. There were a lot of costume changes, going to classes, then coming back.” 

She and her fellow students appreciated the opportunity to perform. 

“Since we didn’t have many other opportunities this was a good way to get that experience, and learn what it’s like to record and create a music video,” she says. “It gave us something to look forward to in a time when there really weren’t any performances or concerts. It was a great bonding experience with a lot of the musicians, and something we could look forward to together.” 

Still, the production had “many, many hurdles to get over,” Hood says. “The most absurd was probably on the last day, the last hour of our video shoot.” 

A group of student singers, faculty, staff, and friends of CUI gathered in front of the large new cross in front of Founders Hall, holding candles for the closing shots of the program. In the dark, just as they were ready to start recording, the sprinklers went off, soaking the participants and flooding the lights set up to light the building and the cross. 

“In the end, we were able to get the shots we needed to make the point of taking the light from the Cross out into the community,” Hood says. 

After shooting wrapped up, the team was nervous about what the final product would look like, though there was no going back now. 

“As you start to see it emerging, you ask, are we really going to pull this off?” Mueller says. “It took a lot of faith to do this. Could we record new content that would be up to standards given the restrictions and the timeline?” 

Those thoughts were on everyone’s mind as pieces of the finished product started coming in. “We heard it and saw it, and we said ‘This is working. This is something special,’” Mueller recalls.

For Hood, the “aha” moment was realizing that the Forward in Faith campaign and the construction of the Borland-Manske Center, beginning seven years earlier, had made the program possible.

Without that recording studio, we could not have done what we did.

Hood says. "The Borland-Manske Center opened up just in time for this need. Definitely, you can see God at work, preparing the ground for us so that we could plant the seeds of the Gospel at Christmas in 2020 across Orange County.” 

using the recording studio

As Christmas approached, PBS SoCal promoted the program much more heavily than expected. They promised CUI twenty 30-second advertisements, but ended up running nearly 200 such spots. They purchased social media ads which racked up 196,000 views, and sent multiple emails to a mailing list of more than 400,000 PBS SoCal viewers. 

“The marketing-brand awareness was a big win for us in this,” says Hood, who was the show’s executive producer and director for video production. “PBS SoCal went above and beyond in everything.” 

Instead of airing the program three times, Los Angeles and Orange County PBS affiliates aired it six times at prime times, including Christmas Eve at 10 p.m. when many people tune in. Nielsen numbers showed that 60,000 households watched — fully half of what, by comparison, BBC News gets nationally on PBS. That didn’t include any of the online streaming audience.

“The show really distinguished CUI nationally,” says Held, who was officially the show’s musical producer and artistic director. “No other university I saw on TV or online had the production value we did. We really stood out and ended up with an exemplary program. It was universally praised. Of all the things I’ve done at Concordia, it’s one of the most heavily commented projects. It’s certainly one of the most ‘seen’ things that Concordia has ever done, by far.” 

The student musicians were impressed as well. “When I saw it on the screen I said, ‘Okay, this actually turned out pretty fun. It’s a good representation of our musical talent,’” Kruse says. “I was really excited to tell my parents.” 

In addition to that, she received a level of professional training she didn’t expect. 

“After this semester, I am entering the music industry, so it’s important to have a repertoire of something you can show people,” Kruse says. “This is something I am very proud of and will be excited to show people. Creating the music video was a unique opportunity that we wouldn’t have had if COVID hadn’t happened.” 

In the end, every piece of audio, from the new arrangements by Steve Young, Alex Guebert, and Tom Mueller, to the final mastering was produced with no outside help, demonstrating the capabilities of Concordia’s faculty. 

Steve Mueller says he was most gratified hearing over and over how much people enjoyed the show and what a highlight it was for them that Christmas season. He also marvels at how restrictions caused the University to display a broader range of its music programs. 

“A normal Christmas concert would have largely focused on our larger groups: choir, handbells, wind orchestra,” he says. “It wouldn’t have shown what we do with small ensembles or in a recording studio.” Within days of the holidays, a PBS SoCal producer called Bil Hood. 

“She was so impressed with the production that she was in touch with me to say, ‘Today is the day they open registration for L.A.-area Emmy awards, and I would like to help you register this production for consideration,’” Hood says. “We are now waiting to see if it moves through to a nomination. Emmy Award-winning Concordia Irvine? That would be something great.” 

PBS SoCal also wants to make the program an annual event and to make it available to national affiliates. The team is already planning for next year’s show to include big Christmas concert footage plus studio recordings. 

“It’s a good enough quality to be national,” Held says. “I’ll say that loud and clear and confidently. Our program is ready to do that.” CUI President Dr. Michael Thomas — who enjoyed the program as an observer — says that because Concordia “took a leap of faith and had students here on campus, and because we had the Borland-Manske Center with the recording studio, we were able to showcase our music to potentially millions and share the Gospel. Without that building, we could not have said yes to PBS’s invitation. Now we have the chance going forward to partner with PBS with Christmas concerts in years to come."

Watch "All is Bright" at

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