The Cathedral of St. John the Divine - the sixth largest cathedral in the world - is a splendid sight in and of itself. It is 600 feet long, the length of two football fields. It is accented by massive columns, ornate arches, brilliant stained glass windows and has a vaulted ceiling that rises 124 feet, the height of a 12-story building.
When 297 members of the Tabernacle Choir took their places in the Manhattan cathedral, it seemed the magnificent structure, finally, had found its perfect vocal complement. The scene was, to say the least, awe-inspiring, as if the final brush strokes had been applied to a masterpiece of architecture. The choir's sound was practically beyond earthly description, although some members of the audience tried to put into words what they thought of the performances. The adjectives they used - "beautiful," "wonderful," "marvelous," "inspiring," "exquisite," and even "heavenly" - seemed to fall short of the superlatives they sought to describe what they had seen and heard during the choir's concert in the cathedral.Performing in the cathedral Aug. 8-9, the choir concluded its tour in which it presented the national premiere of "An American Requiem," composed and directed by James DeMars. The tour began with concerts in Washington, D.C., at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Aug. 4-5. (For coverage of the Washington concerts, please see Aug. 12 Church News.) The choir returned to Salt Lake City Aug. 10.
The concerts were a part of the nation's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. "An American Requiem" was commissioned by Art Renaissance Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Phoenix, Ariz. Michel Sarda, president of the foundation, told the Church News that as plans for premiering the new work got underway it was only "science fiction" to think that the Tabernacle Choir would be part of it. "We were discussing other choirs," he said. "This one - the Tabernacle Choir - was the Rolls Royce."
Mr. Sarda introduced the program at each concert, and explained that the tradition of the requiem "honors the memory of people of outstanding stature who have gone before us. . . .
"By honoring the past, we also contribute to the future by showing that what we share is more important than what divides us."
Dr. DeMars, a professor of music at Arizona State University, spoke with the Church News about the significance of the concerts, especially in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the "perfect venue" for performing a requiem. He commented on the "bringing together of peoples" reflected in the work of the composition and in the choir's performances of it. "An American Requiem" gives musical acknowledgment to the nation's many peoples, beginning with "Canticle of the Sky," which has a strong Native American theme and moving on to the many other peoples who have come to the land.
Accenting the diversity of America's peoples were the performers: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir with guest soloists, Simon Estes, an African-American bass-baritone; Robert Breault, a Caucasian tenor; Linda Childs, an African-American mezzo-soprano; and Audrey Luna, a soprano whose name itself reflects Latin America. The soloists backgrounds include Catholic and Protestant faiths.
One of the most striking parts of the performance was when Mr. Estes sang from the text of a Jewish memorial prayer, which was translated by Rabbi Albert Plotkin of Phoenix. Another high point of the performance was when Dr. Breault, a professor of music at the University of Utah, sang from a piece inspired by Martin Luther King's speech, "I Have a Dream," and Mr. Estes picked up the line, "Let freedom ring."
"Here you have an African American singing a Jewish prayer, and a white Catholic singing the words of a black Protestant minister," Dr. DeMars commented. "And they are singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. What better statement can you make?"
According to the audience's response, the statement was right on the mark.
Wendell M. Smoot, choir president, said the New York portion of the tour alone "would have been worth the trip." The concert on Aug. 8 was telecast live on the Faith and Values Channel.
The final concert on Aug. 9, came about as close to musical ecstasy as one could hope. Booming timpani resounded throught the massive cathedral, and quiet notes seemed to float ethereally to the domed ceiling and, if possible, beyond. People in the audience applauded exuberantly when the concert ended. Many left their seats to stand close to the choir and orchestra as an encore of one of the pieces, "Sanctus," was performed.
"The choir members caught the vision of what they were to do on the tour," Pres. Smoot said. "The concerts involved the choir in an interfaith project designed to draw people closer together and yet, at the same time, further establish the identity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This unique work, `An American Requiem,' permitted us to do this."
Guest soloists performing with the choir concurred that the concerts were musical landmark events.
Mr. Estes, who is a world-renowned performer, said, "I have been familiar with this choir since I was a child in Centerville, Iowa. Every Sunday morning before we went to church I listened to the spoken word and the great choir from Salt Lake City. My whole family has been a great admirer of this choir for years. It is a great honor to sing with such a choir that is so dedicated to music and to religion. I'm just really, really thrilled. I feel humbled to be able to sing such a great work that is dedicated to all peoples and religions and nationalities of this country and to sing with probably our most famous choir in the United States, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."
Dr. Breault, who has appeared with the choir about nine times, said he feels like he "is part of the group." Dr. Breault and his wife, Julia, traveled with the choir from Salt Lake City on a charter flight, and on a bus from Washington to New York with choir members. They joined choir members for meals, brief sight-seeing tours, and even attended sacrament meeting with the choir at a hotel on Sunday evening, Aug. 6.
"This whole tour has been one up after another," he said after the last concert. "There have been some pressures, namely making a recording in the Kennedy Center and performing for a live network broadcast. It's been like a roller coaster ride, but instead of going down, it just keeps cranking you up and up and up. Now that the last concert is over, it's time to come zooming down."
Mezzo-soprano Linda Childs "came home" when she sang with the Tabernacle Choir in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She attended Episcopalian services in the cathedral when she lived in New York City several years ago. "I've seen some magnificent things in this cathedral," she said, "and it's very emotional for me to come back. Finally, the right choir is in the right cathedral. Nobody else can make this kind of sound." She said when she was about 5 she was watching the Tabernacle Choir on television. She turned to her mother and said, "Mama, one day I'm going to sing with that choir." Performing with the choir in Washington and New York, she said, was an experience "beyond the wildest, most magnificent dreams."
Soprano soloist Audrey Luna said the schedule of performing with the choir, making a recording at the Kennedy Center and performing for a live cable network broadcast made for "a pretty fast and furious week, but we had a good time." Of becoming acquainted with many members of the choir, she said: "They're very good musicians. This is a good choir, a great choir, actually." She said she would "jump at the chance to sing with them again."