"A peak musical experience."
This year's "Tanner Gift of Music on Temple Square" could have carried that description as a label. The musical offering of the late Obert C. Tanner and his widow, Grace A. Tanner, brought together the Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony under the direction of legendary conductor Robert Shaw in a performance of "Requiem," a 19th century work by Hector Berlioz.As if that weren't a lavish-enough present for the public to enjoy free of charge on two evenings, Friday, April 22, and Saturday, April 23, the "Gift of Music" committee brought in for the performance Stanford Olsen, a Utah native who is now with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, to sing the tenor solo in "Requiem."
The Tabernacle was filled to near capacity both evenings. Practically the only seats unoccupied were those at far ends of rows under the balcony where the acoustics are unstable and visibility of the choir loft and performing stage is obstructed by columns.
The performances undoubtedly will be recorded in music history as among the foremost of symphonic and choral events to have been staged in Utah. The experience of performing with Robert Shaw is certainly one of the highlights in the choir's history, according to many choir members.
Mr. Shaw gained fame with the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra in the 1940s. For 17 years, his was America's premier touring choral group, being sent by the U.S. State Department on tours to 30 countries. He has received 13 Grammy Awards and dozens of other awards. He has honorary degrees and citations from 40 colleges and universities. He was the Atlanta Symphony's music director for 21 years. He and his wife, Caroline, still reside in Atlanta, but he continues to travel extensively as a guest conductor, teacher and lecturer at leading U.S. colleges and universities. The Robert Shaw Institute, now affiliated with Ohio State University, was founded to foster excellence in music-making. The institute's summer festivals in southwest France have attracted international acclaim; a number of recordings have been made by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers.
Mr. Shaw directed the Utah Symphony in 1981 in a performance of Berlioz's "Requiem." He directed the Tabernacle Choir in 1987 in a performance of Mendelssohn's "Elijah" at the Teton Music Festival at Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley said of the guest conductor: "Robert Shaw is one of the legends of the entire choral experience in America. Universally, he is considered the dean of choral conductors. We all had apprehensions because of our knowledge of his exacting musical nature. And we were concerned whether we would be able to measure up to his expectations because of the difficulty of this particular work."
In an interview with the Church News, Mr. Shaw spoke of Berlioz's "Requiem," the score for which calls for a huge orchestra and large chorus. The Berlioz Requiem was the centerpiece of the choir's tour to Israel in December 1992 and January 1993. (See Church News, Jan. 9, 16, 1993.) The choir also performed the work at the Teton Music Festival near Jackson Hole, Wyo., last August. (See Church News, Aug. 28, 1993.)
(Requiems have existed since about the 13th Century. Composers of succeeding generations have added their own touches to the basic requiem, which is a Catholic "Mass for the Dead." Common themes include death, the terrible day of final judgment, the wrath of God, the sinner's pleadings for mercy, prayers of the penitent, and the Redemption wrought by the Lamb of God.)
"Fully two-thirds of Berlioz's `Requiem' is very meditative, quiet, introspective, personal and reflective," Mr. Shaw explained. "But there are extremes of wide contrasts of dynamics. You have a range of everything from a male choir to a female choir to a mixed choir to very few voices singing one movement to a solo voice singing from the rear of the hall. And the orchestra is large, 15-20 percent larger than the usual symphony for a Beethoven orchestration, for instance."
He said Berlioz's musical work "rides the border line" of extreme emotions. "It shows the states of the human mind, from exuberance to that which is terribly painful," he said.
The philosophy of death in the Berlioz "Requiem," he added, "is an extreme event for most of humanity. Mormonism has managed to make its followers have a belief so they don't fear death. There's a great security for them, with their belief in life after death, with the family structure. They're not as afraid of death. I told the choir at one rehearsal, `You just are too secure about death to give this thing the color, the emotion it needs. You're not frightened enough. You need to have some of the 14th-century fright.' They laughed. We had fun with it."
Several choir members commented about how much they learned under Mr. Shaw's direction. While the performances themselves were thrilling, those were not necessarily the highlights for the choir. Brother Ottley said: "The most thrilling thing for me was to have choir members exposed to Mr. Shaw's personality and abilities. I was very proud of how they responded to him, what they were able to do for and with him," Brother Ottley said. "I was most gratified that he reciprocated with warmth and appreciative comments about how well the choir was singing."
Associate choir director Donald Ripplinger said: "This was the peak musical experience for the choir, at least during 19 years I've been with the choir. They did the best singing I've ever heard them do. Mr. Shaw stretched the choir members musically and vocally. This is one of the most demanding, yet most rewarding pieces for an orchestra and choir. Mr. Shaw demanded a level of technical skill that was just a notch above where we had been, yet he was absolutely warm, almost loving of the choir members and what they did."
As guest tenor soloist, Brother Olsen described appearing with the Tabernacle Choir and Robert Shaw as the "ultimate experience" of his career. "For a boy from Salt Lake City, this is the greatest," said Brother Olsen, who is ward mission leader in the Fardale Ward, Caldwell New Jersey Stake.
"There is a difference between when you perform sacred music with people who believe in God and when you perform it with people who don't. To have been a part of this is not like anything else in the world. It's been very hard to be calm and to be in control."
The only experience that surpasses singing with Robert Shaw, Brother Olsen noted, is that of singing with the Tabernacle Choir. He has performed with some of the world's greatest opera companies on some of the most prestigious stages. "I remember the first time I came back here, to the Tabernacle, after I had been at the Met and a few other places," he said. "I was so overwhelmed. There may be places with better acoustics that are interesting and wonderful, and there may be halls that are beautiful, and there may be wonderful audiences in other places. But for the hometown boy, this is the place."