Augustana Lutheran Church at home with the Rutherfords

Christmas was set to be a formal affair at Augustana Lutheran, the robust, East Denver church that makes classical music part of its community-minded spiritual mission.

The church has a vocal choir, a bell choir and, of course, a children’s choir, and they perform regularly as part of services. But for the past 23 years, it also has been the home of Augustana Arts, an independent non-profit music enterprise that serves as one of Denver’s most important presenters of classical fare. Augustana Arts’ annual concert series, with its mix of local and national performers, is a crucial part of the church’s outreach, but also a cultural gem for the city at large.

In a normal year, the holiday season would be a chance to publicly showcase Augustana Arts’ core groups, the Colorado Women’s Chorale and the Colorado Men’s Chorale, plus its in-house ensemble, the adventurous Stratus Chamber Orchestra. There might be concerts or sing-alongs or some collaboration between Augustana Arts musicians and the church’s own choirs.

To watch

“At Home with the Rutherfords” takes place at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 20. Attendees can register in advance for access to the menu and recipes and instructions on how to link to the virtual performance. Info: 303-388-4962 or augustanaarts.org.

That wasn’t to be in 2020, as the now-familiar story goes. The coronavirus pandemic has brought public events to a halt. While that hurts nearly everyone, everywhere, it stings particularly in a church setting during the month of December, where Christmas and its artful blend of sacred and secular music are key to bringing folks together.

Like so many arts groups, Augustana decided to meet the situation head-on: It’s going virtual this year with its seasonal offerings by sending them out via the internet — though with a bit of fair-play in mind for its Dec. 20 event featuring the Stratus Chamber Orchestra.

Here’s the thinking: If the situation demands people invite Stratus into their homes for the holidays, it is only polite for the orchestra musicians to return the favor and invite listeners into their places. And that’s how “At Home with the Rutherfords” came to be.

The unique offering is something between a Christmas concert, a family meal and a cooking show, and it takes place in the home of music director David Rutherford and his wife, Pearl.

More specifically, it is set in their kitchen, where the Rutherfords will make a tasty dessert, tell some stories and present music. In between the mixing and baking, the action will move to the homes of orchestra musicians who will share their own holiday-centered tales and play the music of their choice for listeners, “in the way people do when you’re cooking and have company over and you talk and tell stories,” David Rutherford explained.

It’s a long way stylistically from Augustana Lutheran Church’s stark, modern headquarters on East Alameda Avenue to the Rutherfords’ cozy abode in South Littleton, but David Rutherford said he believes the location offers the right view for an event that aims to be very different than what Stratus usually does.

“If you were sitting on the other side of the island in our kitchen where we prepare food, that’s what you will see,” he said.

The Rutherfords hope the audience will play along, if not as musicians then as home chefs. To that end, they are sending out in advance an entire suggested food lineup everyone can make separately and share together during the hour-long show.

On the menu: prime rib roast, mushroom-stuffed eggs, herbed green beans, wild rice and chocolate flan. The Augustana Arts website has recipes for each dish, along with a complete shopping list to make the job easier. The idea is that participants will make all of the savory dishes in advance and then cook along with the Rutherfords as they prepare the flan on video.

But like any good cooking show, folks can just click in and simply enjoy watching, and perhaps pick up a little inspiration for their own holiday food prep.

They also can listen to the music. Classical programs are almost always listed in advance, but this concert will be a surprise. The musicians were asked to perform music that has personal meaning to them.

“If you were to spend Christmas with one of the musicians in Stratus, and they said, ‘Hey, let me grab my cello,’ this is what they would play,” David Rutherford said.

Viewers can expect a mix of straight-ahead classical solos and duets, along with familiar holiday standards. Carols are crucial to any holiday celebration, Rutherford notes. “There are certain things in our memories that attach us to certain songs. Carols bring back those memories.”

The concert is technically free, though Augustana Arts is suggesting a $50 donation, which can be made at the same time people register for the event on the website. That’s not a bad price considering an entire family can attend the concert through a single, live stream.

Attendees can look into their own pocketbooks to determine the amount of a donation — or if you are having a bad year, as so many are, no donation — though, as with scores of cultural nonprofit these days, Augustana could use the money. Stratus is a semi-professional group; it generally pays musicians when they perform, though not at the level of the union musicians who play in larger orchestras.

When the organization was forced to cancel concerts, it lost revenue. But the situation is not dire, according to Augustana Arts executive director Lynn Nestingen. Augustana, which also teaches music to disadvantaged kids in Denver, is small and nimble and keeps its overhead low where it can. It also has a diverse funding base of foundational and government grants, including SCFD, that have kept it going.

Instead of wallowing during a year of distanced performances, Augustana used its downtime to plan for the post-pandemic future. “In some ways, it’s allowed us to pause and reflect, and that has been a good opportunity for us to explore who we are, where we are going and what is our niche,” Nestingen said.

What could fit into Augustana’s stated mission of presenting music that “illuminates the soul and connects communities?” That’s still being determined. But clearly, like a lot of its peers in the arts, it is learning plenty from the limitations and opportunities of 2020, breaking old habits, embracing technology, meeting customers where they live.

The Stratus Chamber Orchestra has a reputation for doing things differently. It’s proud of the fact that its musicians sometimes play while seated in the audience and its bio brags about the time the ensemble “explored the musical energy of popping popcorn uncovered” during an event at the Denver Art Museum.

“At Home with the Rutherfords” takes that unique perspective on presenting music even further. It’s an experiment in interactivity and one of the more creative evolutions in the status quo that regional arts group have tried out in these times.

Where this one ends will depend on the audience. Do they prefer to sit back and listen, or to be a part of the festivities themselves? Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram enable endless possibilities. “One of the things we are hoping people will do while cooking is share themselves in action,” said Nestingen.

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