The nation's capital - with majestic monuments to heroes, heroines and lofty ideals - is the setting for the Tabernacle Choir's national premiere of "An American Requiem," Aug. 4 and 5.
The choir's performances at the John F. Kennedy Center are among major events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. After appearing in Washington, the choir will perform the requiem in New York City at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Aug. 8 and 9. (The Church News will report on the performances in the Aug. 12 issue.)Nearly 300 members of the choir, some accompanied by spouses, family members or friends, left Salt Lake City for Washington early Thursday, Aug. 3, traveling on two charter planes and on one commercial flight. The choir is scheduled to return to Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 10.
While on tour, the choir will perform its weekly network broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word." The popular program will originate from the Kennedy Center Sunday morning, Aug. 6.
The performance Aug. 8 at St. John the Divine will be carried live at 8 p.m. (EDT) on the Faith & Values Channel.
"An American Requiem," by Arizona composer James DeMars, was commissioned by the Art Renaissance Foundation, based in Phoenix, Ariz. It has been officially designated by the U.S. Secretary of Defense as a "commemorative community honoring World War II veterans, their families, and those who served on the home front."
Dr. DeMars, a professor of music at Arizona State University, and members of the Tabernacle Choir met face-to-face the first time Sunday evening, July 30, at a rehearsal in the Tabernacle.
Dr. DeMars told the Church News that he has known of the choir ever since he bought one of its recordings at a store near his home in Minnesota when he was a teenager. Although he has watched the choir on television, he had never heard it in person until choir director Jerold Ottley gave him the conductor's baton at the rehearsal July 30. Dr. DeMars will conduct the choir in Washington and New York.
"I remember thinking, when I bought that record ("Ninth Symphony," directed by Eugene Ormandy) that this was a pretty good group," Dr. DeMars said, smiling at the understatement made in his youth. "I was very pleased with the album."
As he began to make music his career, composing, conducting and teaching, he said he never thought of the possibility that he might someday direct the Tabernacle Choir.
About four years ago, Michel Sarda, founder of the non-profit Art Renaissance Foundation, asked Dr. DeMars to compose a requiem. That requiem, Mr. Sarda told the Church News, was to "pay tribute to people who worked to achieve a dream, who made something wonderful happen in this great country." Mr. Sarda, a native of France, said he wanted to contribute something that would remind citizens of the acts of selfless service, of the heroes and heroines who have made America "the great country that it is."
Dr. DeMars turned down the first two requests to compose the requiem, but Mr. Sarda was persistent. He asked again, and Dr. DeMars agreed to start working on the composition in January 1993. He finished the work later that year, and in 1994, made a recording of it with a choir and orchestra in Phoenix. A copy of the recording was sent to Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley and associate director Donald Ripplinger.
OttleyT had called and told me that the Tabernacle Choir was going to perform my work, I would have said,
I'm thrilled,' " Dr. DeMars reflected. "But he called and said,We're performing it, and you're directing.'
"That was a remarkable thing for him to do, but Jerry is a remarkable man in many ways, especially in the way he deals with music. I really feel that he understands what music is about. And it's not about egos.
"Music isn't about competition," Dr. DeMars said. "It has to do with how we feel and the ideas that cannot be expressed in words. There is a world that is not verbal, and that's a world of music. It was a gift to me for Jerry to say, `I want you to conduct the choir.' I'm very appreciative of that. As a composer, it's very nice because there is nothing between me and the music. I'm really happy to be directing the choir."
Dr. DeMars admitted he was nervous the first few minutes of the rehearsal. "But I started to relax and really enjoy the whole experience," he said. "Members of this choir are all musicians. I teach at the music school, so I'm used to being around musicians. What's nice with the Tabernacle Choir is that everybody wants to be there. It's a real honor to be in that choir. There's a lot of competition to get in, and there is an enthusiasm for the music that you can't find anywhere else.
"In the course of the rehearsal, I could ask for things musically and get them immediately. I didn't have to ask twice. I had to say only a few words, and they'd hit it immediately. There would be a distinct change, not a `sort of' change. That told me I was dealing with real musicians who understood their music. There's a real professionalism - even more than professionalism - with these choir members. They're obviously well trained."
Audiences seldom realize how much training goes into the choir's performances, or how demanding is the schedule of choir members in carrying out their duties.
Tabernacle Choir Pres. Wendell M. Smoot said: "This has been an extremely busy year for the choir. They've been engaged all year along, with one important event after another. We started the year with the choir rehearsing in January to make a recording of Handel's `Messiah' in February, under direction of Sir David Wilcocks of London. The choir did the whole thing from a standing start.
"Then the choir moved quickly into getting prepared for general conference. After that was the remarkable experience of performing in southern Utah April 8 for the dedication of a new arts center and outdoor amphitheater, and for the broadcast of `Music and the Spoken Word' from there on April 9.
"It wasn't until those events were accomplished that the choir was able to begin rehearsing for `An American Requiem.' This is a major musical work. It is about 72 minutes long, and involves 14 movements, all of which were brand new to the choir because it is a new composition.
"The choir added Tuesday evening rehearsals to its regular schedule of rehearsing on Thursday evenings. In the meantime, there were broadcasts of `Music and the Spoken Word' every Sunday morning.
"So this has been a very strenuous year for the choir. Its members have shown an extra measure of commitment and dedication, responding magnificently to all the requests made of them. They rearranged their summer vacations to accommodate the needs of the choir. This eight-day tour to Washington and New York will constitute the vacations for most of the choir members who are employed since they have to take that time off from their work."