Behind the scenes of the MacMurray Madrigal dinner

Behind the scenes of the MacMurray Madrigal dinner

By Anna Ferraro

Imagine: you enter a dazzling dining room that’s set to resemble a baronial hall of the Renaissance days. A group of singers serenade you as you are seated and provided with your first course. Around you, the guests are dressed regally – like the setting they are in. The atmosphere of the room is one of beauty, laughter, joy, and love. Beauty – in the sacred songs that will be performed by the choir. Laughter – in the humor that is shared by the entertaining groups. Joy – in every aspect of the evening of celebration. And there is love – as you absorb the delightful elements of the evening with people close to your heart. This is the setting for a Madrigal dinner, and this December, ladies and gentlemen, a Madrigal dinner returns to MacMurray college. Will you be attending?

“Just like planning for a wedding, it’s a big event to pull off,” said Christine Smith, director of choirs at MacMurray and coordinator of this year’s Madrigal dinner. Having done it for all eight years that she worked at JHS, Smith is a veteran of this event.

Last year, the Madrigal dinner was presented by MacMurray alumni. This year, supported financially by alumni, the students will present the program. Smith said, “It’s a lot of work on my end, but very rewarding work. My whole entire choir had time to think about if they wanted to do this, and then they unanimously committed to the event.” With that, Smith shares, “My choir kids are very excited, but I don’t think they know what they’re in for, actually. It’s tough music, and when we get it, and sing it all a cappella, they respond with, “that’s so cool!” The combinations of sounds had harmonies in the music are amazing, and challenging too, so I want them to reach that bar, and set a high standard for the concert.”

One thing Smith loves about Madrigal dinners are the traditional parts – the Wassail song, the presentation of the Boar’s head, and other elements are presented at all Madrigal dinners. But then there’s the script and the concert – which are unique to each event. Smith explained, “That’s the fun thing about a Madrigal dinner: you recognize the traditional songs, and then there are new pieces as well.”

Smith is creating a more formal feel for this year, with narration provided by Jeannie Zuck, and a lovely mix of traditional and sacred music for the choir concert after the meal. Smith smiled, “In the dining hall at macmurray, it feels so majestic – not anything like a college cafeteria.”

The clock is ticking on Smith and her group. They’re practicing heavily in the dining room at MacMurray, getting the exact feel for the acoustics of the room. Between practices, Smith is canvassing the campus with a tape measure in hand, saying, “I’ve been carrying a tape measure with me for the last two weeks. … Measuring things for costumes, getting all the students’ measurements, purchasing orders for costumes, getting staging for the singers, preparing the head table where the singers sit in their traditional renaissance attire, and more.”

J. Warren Mitchell, the award-winning tenor who performed with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in early November, had a piece in this event, as well. Meeting with Smith and her choir during his time here in Jacksonville, he offered coaching, and direction for how the young MacMurray vocalists could bring out the best in their Renaissance sound. Smith commented, “He gave us a lot of really good tips for our Madrigal music.”

But there’s more to the evening than music – Smith is working closely with the head chef at MacMurray, as they plan together what the menu for the event needs to look like. Smith chuckled, “the food needs for this event differ vastly from other college dinners” (boar’s head, anyone?)

And there’s decor, and table settings. Smith laughed, “I learned some things from last years dinner, and it mainly has to do with moving Christmas trees from the chapel to the dining room.” How to keep them straight and regal looking during their journey across campus where they will be displayed?

But for all the effort and cost of the evening, Smith made it clear, “this is not a fundraising event. For guests, the ticket cost covers the evening, and I’m in this for the choir kids. It will be interesting to see how they react to it.”

“Some of my richest and most treasured memories before graduating at MacMurray were the Madrigal dinners. The people that I sang with in those events, I’m still connected to. We see each other at homecoming, and stay in touch through social media. There were always 16 singers in the Madrigal group. Out of those 16, I’m very close to at least eight of them. It’s more than an event, it’s a lifelong relationship that you build with the people you produce it with. That’s why it’s been such a strong event at MacMurray, and probably why a lot of the alumni come back for it. And for that reason, I hope to keep the tradition going strong.”

The Madrigal dinner will be held on Saturday, December 8, 5p.m. in the McClelland dining hall on the MacMurray College campus. RSVP deadline is November 28. To RSVP and reserve your $25 ticket, call 217.479.7123, or email

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