Concert is artistic treasure in Rome's cultural landscape

Tourists come here by the tens of thousands, flocking to see architectural splendors remaining from the great Roman Empire, lofty cathedrals and basilicas, and magnificent paintings and sculptures. No question about it, Rome is a city of art and beauty.

The 2,000 or so people who attended the Tabernacle Choir's concert in Accademia Santa Caecilia on Monday evening, June 22, found another artistic treasure to add to Rome's cultural landscape. The concert can be described as nothing less than splendid.Members of the audience practically sprang from their seats to give a standing ovation at the concert's end. They clapped, cheered and shouted "Bis! Bis!" Italian for encore.

However, the audience didn't wait until the end of the concert to be moved by the choir. Throughout its performance, many in attendance wiped tears from their eyes, especially during the singing of "Come, Come, Ye Saints" and "I Am a Child of God." The first verses of both were sung by guest tenor soloist, Robert Breault, professor of voice and director of opera at the University of Utah.

Directed by Jerold Ottley and associate conductor Craig Jessop, and accompanied by John Longhurst, Clay Christiansen and Richard Elliott, the choir gave a performance that was amazing in light of activities preceding the concert.

First of all, the choir has been traveling under a rigorous schedule, having left Salt Lake City on June 12, arriving in London June 13 after a four-hour delay of its charter airline flight. Choir members have returned to hotels late after performances and gotten up early in the mornings for bus trips to their next performances. On one day, when the choir traveled from Brussels to Geneva, the bus ride was 12 hours long. (Please see June 13 and 20 Church News for more details on the choir's tour.)

Choir members got some respite from the grueling travel schedule when they boarded a ship at Genoa, Italy. While most slept, the ship docked at Civitavecchia, about an hour-and-a-half bus ride from Rome, in the early morning of Sunday, June 21. The singers and guests on the tour attended one of two sacrament meetings held aboard ship Sunday morning and had some free time that afternoon to look around the city of Rome.

On Monday, choir members enthusiastically boarded buses for sightseeing in Rome, but that time was greatly limited by slow-moving traffic and rehearsal requirements. In very hot weather, with the Italian sun beating down unmercifully, they spent a couple of hours getting onto and off of buses to tour various famous landmarks, and then were left on their own to see the places that caught their attention the most. Many walked the short distance from the Accademia Santa Caecilia, where their concert was that evening, to St. Peter's Square. Some spent several minutes gazing up at Michelangelo's famous Sistine Chapel ceiling painting, or rushed in and out of shops to buy a few souvenirs in the little time they had before going to rehearsal.

Seeing Rome with the Tabernacle Choir would not top any travel agent's recommendations for the best way to have an unhurried visit to Rome.

Rehearsal began at 5 p.m. Afterward, choir members had time to eat a sack dinner that was provided, but they were advised by doctors traveling with them to not eat the chicken or boiled eggs that had been in the sacks since early morning. Earlier, they were advised to not eat the breaded veal in their sack lunches. Those who had not purchased food during their sightseeing tours got by on rolls, fruit and bottled water - "fizzy" water, at that.

With their ship docked too far away to warrant a return to rest before the concert, choir members sat on the performance hall's interior steps, stood in crowded hallways, lingered in doorways where drafts of cool air helped refresh them. They spent more than three hours waiting for performance time. Some women worked on embroidery and knitting projects; several of the men and women took the opportunity to read books, write in journals or address post cards. Waiting was almost as exhausting for them as was the rushed tour of the city.

Nevertheless, when the women dressed in aqua and the men attired in dark suits walked onto the stage for their concert at 9 p.m., there was no doubt that this was a group ready to perform. And perform they did. The singers practically radiated the spirit of the music they presented. Their faces seemed to glow - perhaps aided somewhat by the day's sunshine - and their eyes sparkled. Without doubt, they were as thrilled to be performing in Rome as the audience was to hear them.

In the audience, men and women, including those who are not Latter-day Saints, were moved by the music. Adele de Michele, observed smiling broadly and clapping enthusiastically, was thought to be a member of the Church because of her reactions during the performance of "I Am a Child of God." When asked about the song, she said she had never heard it before, that it "has a beautiful thought." Asked how she knew about the concert, she replied that she is a music critic and had attended to review it. What would she write in her critique? "Good things," she replied.

With her were Ornella Maturo and her son, Paolo, who seemed equally pleased with the concert. "I was in San Diego and saw the Mormon temple there," she said. "It was so beautiful. When I heard about this concert, I wanted to come hear this choir."

Sister Maren Byrnes, a missionary in the Italy Rome Mission, wiped tears from her eyes during the singing of "Come, Come, Ye Saints." Of the concert, she said, "It was amazing. I love Italy; part of my heart is here, and this choir is also part of my heart. There are a lot of members who came to the concert, and they don't have a lot of money, so they went to a great expense to come. They're pioneers of the Church here. To hear the Tabernacle Choir sing about a pioneer experience and to sing that pioneer song, `Come, Come, Ye Saints' in Italian was incredible. I have the benefit of understanding both English and Italian, but I think it meant a lot to the Latter-day Saints to hear that great hymn in their language. It meant a lot to me."

Several people from the audience rushed to the stage at the end of the performance, hoping for a chance to meet choir members. One woman came down to the stage from the back of the hall and applauded until the last choir member had left the stage.

Members of the Church from the Puglia Italy Stake, in southernmost part of the country by the "heel of Italy's boot," chartered a bus to attend the concert. They rode seven hours on Monday, stayed for the two-hour concert, and then returned home immediately so that some could go to work Tuesday morning. "We have to come hear our choir," they said, shrugging off the long hours spent getting to and from the concert.

Members of the Tabernacle Choir are called to serve as missionaries for the Church. One of the purposes of tours such as this one to Europe is to help open doors and hearts for the preaching of the gospel. Only about half of those attending the concert in Rome are members of the Church.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriett, sat by a man who, at the beginning of the concert, seemed somewhat reserved. By the middle of the concert, he opened up a little, and began asking questions about the choir, expressing amazement that the singers were not paid to perform. As the evening progressed, he commented, "In my whole life, I have never experienced a choir like this; it sings so beautifully." At the end of the concert, the choir sang its traditional farewell hymn, "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again." Sister Uchtdorf said that he turned to her, took her hand in his and said, "I hope we will meet again."

Helping set the atmosphere for the concert was Maurizio Ventura of the Florence Branch, who announced the program. He introduced the choir and the selections to be performed.

A reception held in the lobby of the academy was attended by many officials from national, regional and local governments, as well as influential members of Italy's cultural arts community. Antoio Reca and Mario Papa traveled from Sicily for the concert. Mr. Papa, of TELEIBLEA,the oldest private television station in Italy, began airing the choir's "Music and the Spoken Word" programs some 20 years ago. The station also has aired sessions of general conference, the Church's public service Home Front spots, and Brigham Young University basketball games. "I have been to Salt Lake City many times, but I have come to hear the choir in Italy," Mr. Papa said.

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