Experience both serene and majestic

Dictionaries don't have words to describe some events. Without relying on clich&#233, what can you say about being in Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games?

Try telling someone about the experience of having 360 members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir seated in front of you and, for about 20 minutes, the President of the United States just three rows almost directly behind you, visiting with the U.S. Olympic team and declaring open the world's largest event.

You'd probably be in my situation: at a loss for words. Yet there's so much to tell. Several thousand journalists have written reports on how they saw the Olympic opening ceremonies; why should I add my view to the written record? Perhaps because mine is from a different perspective.

While some 3.5 billion people saw and heard the Tabernacle Choir, I witnessed what it took for those talented, skilled musicians to sing like they did. The stadium audience and television viewers saw the end product; I saw the work in progress. For more than a year, beginning with President Bush's inauguration in January 2001, members of the choir have had tremendous demands on their time and talents, including performances in the Tabernacle and concerts on a tour of the southern U.S. More recently, they've been busy with the Christmas season and performances in the Church production "Light of the World." During February alone their calendar shows 24 public appearances, including dress rehearsals for which tickets are issued, and Music and the Spoken Word broadcasts. In addition, their role in the opening ceremonies brought extra rehearsals and recording sessions. Some days, they made multiple appearances. When the calendar was distributed for February, only four days were left blank.

Australian skier Rowena Bright visits with members of Tabernacle Choir at Olympic Stadium.
Australian skier Rowena Bright visits with members of Tabernacle Choir at Olympic Stadium. | Photo by Gerry Avant

Bundled up in coats, choir members might have looked warm, but they'd already endured more cold weather than most in the stadium. During rehearsals — which lasted up to four hours — on Monday and Wednesday evenings before the opening on Friday — temperatures plunged to the point that "bitter" became the most apt adjective to accompany "cold." And while the temperature during the opening ceremonies Feb. 8 was one degree below freezing, choir members expressed gratitude that it wasn't as cold as it had been during rehearsals.

I've written about and reported on the choir for a number of years. I've heard them sing in all sorts of venues from the Tabernacle on Temple Square to vast sports arenas and elegant concert halls around the world. I should be used to their sound and the effect they have on people. But I was surprised and impressed by the sweet, peaceful, beautiful sound that filled the stadium as they sang the U.S. national anthem. I stood with 55,000 people, amazed at how voices could sound so powerful yet so serene, so majestic yet so personal.

As members of the choir sang "Call of the Champions," the official 2002 Winter Olympic's musical theme composed and directed by the award-winning John Williams, I thought of what President Gordon B. Hinckley had said of the choir in a recent interview: "They're champions in their own right." The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the accompanying Utah Symphony set the tone for the Olympic Games opening ceremonies.

From exuberance to solemnity, many emotions came to the surface. How can you put into words the overwhelming silence enveloping the stadium as eight American athletes, accompanied by representative New York police officers and firefighters, bore the battered U.S. flag that flew at the World Trade Center Sept. 11th? The whup, whup, whup of hovering helicopters seemed the only sound in the world. Choir member Elliott Clark expressed my own sentiments: "I was surprised at how silent it was. But after I thought about it for a moment, I wasn't that surprised because that was the only response we could give. It was very emotional. It was all I could to do to keep from weeping."

Then there were the athletes, the Olympians. I was unprepared for the burst of pride I felt as each country was announced and athletes filed into the stadium. Some countries sent dozens; others had only one Olympian. I imagined mothers and fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents across the world sitting before television screens exclaiming, "Look! There she is!" or "He looks great!"

As the Olympians came up the stadium steps on each side of the choir they shook singers' hands; choir members further from the aisles waved. LDS Olympian Rowena Bright of Australia created quite a stir when she came over after the ceremonies concluded. Women in the choir hugged her as if she were one of the family. And she was.

The program represented a moment in history; it's said that about 70 percent of the performers — singers, dancers, ice skaters — were Latter-day Saints, commensurate with Utah's population. A mention was made of the Church in a collective tribute to peoples of many backgrounds, including Mormon pioneers, who comprise Utah's history. Covered wagons, handcarts and pioneer costumes represented the state's religious and cultural history.

The whole event was a moment in history, a time none of us who were there are likely to forget. If choir member Sally Brinton hadn't already said it, I'd say, "It was spectacular. It was uplifting. I felt for that moment in time that the world was unified."


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