Every now and then, the perfect gift comes along, something that is so unique and beautiful that the recipient wishes it could be shared with everyone.
This year's "Gift of Music" - the performance of "An American Requiem" by the Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony in the Tabernacle on Temple Square - aptly fits that category. An extra special flourish was added in having this requiem directed by its composer, James DeMars, and featuring four guest soloists: Simon Estes, a world renowned bass-baritone; Robert Breault, tenor; Linda Childs, mezzo-soprano; and Audrey Luna, soprano.The concert was free to the public through a financial endowment of Obert C. and Grace A. Tanner and the O.C. Tanner Co. It was the seventh Tanner "Gift of Music" concert presented in the Tabernacle since 1983. Past programs have included Verdi's "Requiem," Mendelssohn's "Elijah," Berlioz's "Requiem," and various operatic and concert selections as well as musical works of Americana.
While most attending past concerts knew what to expect on the programs, the vast majority of the 8,500 or so attending this year's concerts on Nov. 1-2 entered the Tabernacle with practically no familiarity with "An American Requiem." The Tabernacle Choir, with composer DeMars directing, performed the requiem's national premiere while on concert tour to Washington, D.C., and New York City in 1995, with the same guest soloists.
The performances in the Tabernacle marked the premiere of the musical work in Utah, with most in the audiences, therefore, hearing it for the first time. From shouts of "Bravo!" ringing out over enthusiastic and prolonged applause, it was evident at the end of the concert both evenings that many would have liked to have heard it again and again. It was a gift well received.
Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve, who also is chairman of the "Gift of Music" committee, welcomed the audiences both evenings and introduced Dr. DeMars and the guest soloists.
"An American Requiem" - which Dr. DeMars, a member of the faculty of Arizona State University, completed in 1993 after having been commissioned by French-born Michel F. Sarda - is a musical memorial to American heroes and heroines, men and women who have made significant contributions to the nation. The composition, which is about 75 minutes in length, includes 14 movements organized in four parts; the first piece in each part is sung in English and other parts, which include psalms and prayers, are sung in Latin.
Paying homage to America's diverse peoples, the requiem opens with the delicate yet powerful "Canticle of the Sky," the music and lyrics of which evoke a distinct mental imagery of the vast expanses that Native Americans once looked upon. The requiem moves on to include musical hints of Hispanic, European, Jewish and African-American presences.
A highlight of the performance of "An American Requiem" was the Sanctus, which incorporates phrases from the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King Jr. For this, the choir sang as two choruses, one in a classical style singing in Latin, "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus," and the other in the mode of a spiritual singing in English, "Lord, God of hosts." Men's and women's voices then took up separate refrains of "Glory to God in the highest."
Then, after a poignant pause, the tenor voice sang out, "I have a dream . . . that one day we sit down together and pray . . . like brothers and sisters we join hands together and sit at the table and pray." The bass-baritone's voice forcefully commanded, "Let freedom ring! Dark days will pass and we will sing, `We're free . . . at last!' " The mezzo-soprano and soprano joined with the tenor and bass-baritone for their four separate parts.
The choir and guest artists combined for eight-part counterpoint as differing melodies and lyrics were added, as in layers one upon another, until the Sanctus ended with "Hosanna in excelsis. Amen." It seemed as if the audience, as well as the performers, needed to pause to catch its collective breath. Delighting the audiences both evenings, Dr. DeMars directed the Sanctus for the encore.
"It was an absolute thrill to be in the Tabernacle and directing the choir again," Dr. DeMars said at a reception after the concert Nov. 1. "I was delighted to be with the choir. They're everything they always have been - and more. They're growing. And the orchestra was wonderful, so professional, so smooth. We had just a good time. The energy seemed to build throughout the course of the piece."
Dr. DeMars paid tribute to Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley and associate director Craig Jessop, referring to them as "two of the conductors I think are the best in the world." He mentioned also Tabernacle organists John Longhurst, Clay Christiansen and Richard Elliott, calling them exceptional. "I don't think people realize the incredible brilliance and talent that exists here," he said.
Mr. Estes has performed with all of the major opera companies, including New York's Metropolitan Opera, La Scala Milan, Royal Opera House Convent Garden, L'Opera de Paris, Gran Theatre del Liceu Barcelona, San Francisco Opera, Lyra Opera of Chicago, the State Operas of Hamburg, Munich, Vienna, and Zurich, and at the Bayreuth, Salzburg and Glyndebourne festivals.
Singing with the Tabernacle Choir, he said, "was a unique experience. I've heard them sing since I was a child. Years ago in Centerville, Iowa, each week we would turn it on and would hear `Music and the Spoken Word' from here. Of course, as you know, it's our greatest choir, perhaps, in America. It was great to sing with them here, and it was great to sing with them in Washington, D.C., and New York, but this is like being in the original mecca of this choir. It was really great."
Mr. Breault, who was the soloist with the choir on its tour to the Holy Land in December 1992-January 1993 and has performed many other times with the choir and Utah Symphony, is a native of Wisconsin who moved to Utah with his wife, Julia, in 1992. Professor of voice and director of opera at the University of Utah, he has had a rich and varied career performing opera, oratorio and concert works nationally and abroad.
"To be part of this whole experience is a wonderful thing," he said of the "Gift of Music" concerts. "To look out and see all those different folks enjoying this wonderful gift, and to think that nobody paid a cent to be here, was just incredible. That's what music is all about, really." He said he "had an absolutely great time" performing with the choir, and with the Utah Symphony, "our own symphony." He called the requiem "a very inspired piece," and said he thought it "will be around for a long time."
Ms. Childs, who is completing her doctorate at Arizona State University, has performed numerous concerts and has had roles in several operas. A native of North Carolina, she said she was delighted to be back with members of the choir she had met during the tour in 1995. "To be in the Tabernacle itself - it was just incredible," she said. "I grew up hearing the Tabernacle Choir, and now, to be here singing with the choir is just a wonderful experience." She celebrated her birthday Nov. 2. Singing with the choir on that date, she said, was "absolutely the best birthday present."
Ms. Luna's career includes 20 operatic roles, dozens of recitals and numerous oratorio performances. She has appeared in concerts in Vienna, Paris, Salzburg and Jerusalem. "I loved singing with the Tabernacle Choir," she said. "The choir is fabulous and being in the Tabernacle was wonderful. When it was full of people - it was just great. It was very comfortable for me to sing there. It was really a privilege."