A madrigal moment

Amid age-old holiday carols and cries of “God save the King!”, over 200 members of the Carnegie Mellon community, young and old, were dinner guests at King Henry IV’s royal table Saturday night in Rangos Ballroom. The event, called the Madrigal Dinner, was a who’s-who of medieval notables, complete with king, queen, court, jesters, magicians, choristers, servants, beggars, trumpeters, and, of course, a royal bagpiper.

The dinner itself was a period creation, including braised beef and wassail (apple cider, but who’s checking?), served by waiters outfitted by the drama department, who also dressed the court and performers.

Because Carnegie Mellon has not has a Madrigal dinner for years, many attendees did not know exactly what to expect besides a fun time. “I’m excited; I’m expecting good food and I’m looking forward to the singing,” said Adam Richardson, a junior voice major, on his way in.

On paper, the dinner may have seemed like a quirky product of the music department, but it was really much more. Saturday’s event marked the revival of a unique Carnegie Mellon tradition, encompassing the university’s talents in art, music, and dramatic performance. Moreover, the dinner saw a very healthy collaboration between different academic departments, student organizations, and administrative departments to produce something that was entertaining for everyone.

The Madrigal Dinner is the brain-child of Anne Witchner, now assistant dean of StudentAffairs, who held the very first dinner in the mid-’80s and, with the help of Denise Fazio, executive officer of Faculty Senate, held them every other year until 1999–2000, when the madrigal tradition gave way to Student Affairs’ Winter Gala.

This year, Witchner revived the event with the help of what seems like everyone on campus, but even that didn’t make it easy. “It’s so hard to get people to really get psyched,” said Witchner, who deals with motivating people for events all the time. “I do Orientation, I used to do Carnival, I did Buggy — trust me, this is going to be great event.”

For the dinner, the School of Music supplied the madrigal chorus and musicians, the School of Drama supplied the court, the Student Affairs staff provided actors and entertainers, Student Senate and AB Special Events provided funding, AB Tech set up lights and sound, Chemistry professor Karen Stump performed an experiment, and Witchner engaged the event-planning skills of her orientation staff. Brittany McCandless, a former head orientation counselor and a senior in professional writing and international relations, wrote the script for the event and coordinated the performers’ activities — she was also the queen.

Witchner noted that Carnegie Mellon is one of many schools with annual or biennial madrigal dinners, some of which are Christian-based. “It’s not religious. A lot of schools, if you look, will have Christmas trees; we haven’t done that,” Witchner said. “We’re really the right school to do this… It’s a true student activities event, bringing together the talent of students who are artistic.”

The event was anchored by a group of 20 madrigal singers from the School of Music under the direction of music professor Robert Page, director of choral and opera studies, who has directed the singers at every one of Carnegie Mellon’s Madrigal Dinners. “We put [this group] together just for this; it’s not a regular thing,” said Page, who has hand-picked the singers since the dinner’s inception in the late ’80s. “We don’t do this every year. We should, but we don’t,” he added. The choristers performed the traditional holiday carols after only four rehearsals together, and that was on top of an upcoming holiday concert. Still, for Page, “That’s what’s fun about it.”

Also on hand were professional jugglers, stilt-walkers, and magicians from the Talent Network, Inc., who travel the country performing their acts and are old hands at Carnegie Mellon’s dinners. (Howard Mincone, one of the physical humorists, glibly noted that a sign outside the University Center prohibits juggling.)

Considering the intense planning and preparation that went into the event, it is unclear whether the tradition will continue on a biennial basis the way it did in the past, but it certainly set the bar for a collaborative effort to make an event fun for everyone in the university community.