Spectacular. That, perhaps, is the best word to describe the look and sound of the Tabernacle Choir on Sunday night, June 28. At El Escorial's Bascilica of the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo, nearly 300 members of the choir took their places on marble steps leading to an altar in the lofty edifice that was completed in 1854.
According to one account, the exquisitely beautiful building was constructed to rival St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. With cavernous spaces, arches and a dome ceiling, sound takes on an etheral element. In this setting, the choir performed a recital of anthems, liturgicals and hymns. The final notes of each musical offering reverberated four or five seconds. Members of the audience seemed to hold their breath until the notes faded.The recital at El Escorial came near the end of the choir's seven-country tour to Europe. The tour began with a concert and "Music and the Spoken Word" program in London on June 14 and concluded with a concert in Lisbon, Portugal on July 1.
Located 15 kilometers northwest of Madrid, the basilica is said to be "the perfect example of the Golden Age of Spain." The interior was ornate: gold-gilt statuary, exquisite murals and detailed carvings portrayed the birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The art work helped create an almost breath-taking beauty. Accenting the scene, women in the choir wore fuschia dresses with pearls and crystals and men wore dark suits, white shirts and bow ties.
The evening took on an atmosphere of the melding of cultures and histories, of shared hopes and dreams from divergent pasts. Some members of the choir, having participated last year in extensive commemorative events for the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, were impressed by the fact that they were taking part in commemorating events dating back 400 years.
The Tabernacle Choir was invited to perform at El Escorial during the two-year-long commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Emperor Carlos V and King Felipe II. In 1584 Carlos V designed El Escorial to house the tombs of Spain's royalty. Carlos and Felipe died within two years of each other, in 1598 and 1600.
The choir's recital at El Escorial came as the result of efforts by Ronald Horton, a former resident of Salt Lake City who worked with the head musician of the Spanish Court in Madrid. Brother Horton, who spent the past few years in Spain, died Jan. 1 in Madrid.
Several years ago Brother Horton met Jose Peris Lacasa, a composer and director of music for the Royal Palace of King Juan Carlos the First of Spain.
The composer attended the choir's recital in the basilica. "Ronald and I became friends," he told the Church News. "We talked about music. He told me that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was going to tour Europe, but it was going to perform only in Barcelona. I said to him, `The choir must come to Madrid. Please get it to come here; the door is open. It must come and perform in El Escorial.' "
Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley said Sunday evening's concert, in his mind, was dedicated to Brother Horton, who played a key role in making arrangements for the choir to perform in the famous basilica.
Mr. Peris gave abundant praise to the Tabernacle Choir, which performed one of his works, "O Sacrum Conivium," written for King Juan Carlos on the anniversary of the death of his father. The work commemorates the Last Supper, reminding all believers partaking of the sacramental bread and wine that Christ has given His body and blood to the sanctification of all who remember Him and keep His commandments. The chant-like declamation echoes the traditional Gregorian melody and retains the traditional "alleluia."
Mr. Peris said of the choir's performance of his composition: "The ones who performed it first could not do it as well as it has been done by the Tabernacle Choir. The piece seems to be a simple one, but it has a couple of things which are very hard to do. It has modulations and colors in it, and sudden changes – unexpected changes. This must be an excellent choir to do that. They sing one way and, all of a sudden, they turn and do it completely different. The original choir could not have done that. In Spain, I have never heard it performed the way the choir has done it. You feel it is a piece for the communion; it's very holy and sacred. The choir has done it divinely."
The composer said that it was "never thought of to have a choir of this size and volume and quality in this building. This is one of the best things that Spain has done within the two years of the commemoration of these anniversaries."
In addition to anthems and sacred music from other faiths, the choir performed "Come, Come, Ye Saints" and "Our Savior's Love," hymns familiar to Latter-day Saints.
The choir was led by Jerold Ottley, choir director, and Craig Jessop, associate conductor. Tabernacle organists traveling with the choir on tour accompanied at the recital: John Longhurst, Clay Christiansen and Richard Elliott.
The recital guests came by invitation only. The audience, comprised of several dignitaries, was limited in size compared to the large concert crowds the choir has drawn thus far on its tour.
Nevertheless, the 500 or so people in the audience expressed a huge amount of appreciation to the choir by standing and applauding as a whole until the last singer left the room.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy and members of the Europe West Area presidency attended the recital with their wives, Harriet Uchtdorf and Janelle Cook.
The performance began about 9 p.m. and concluded shortly after 11 p.m. Buses returning choir members to their hotel were caught in heavy traffic, which caused them to reach their hotel after midnight.