The Tabernacle Choir has a story to tell and Heidi Swinton intends to help in the telling, but she's discovering she has miles to go. Literally.
Author of "Sacred Stone," the story of the Nauvoo Temple, and researcher and script writer for two other national PBS network documentaries, she's at work on a book and script for a new documentary, "America's Choir," also for PBS, to be produced by Lee Groberg. The book, the title of which comes from the designation given the Tabernacle Choir by President Ronald Reagan, will be published in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of continuous network broadcasting, a landmark that will be reached next summer.
Sister Swinton's research is taking her on the road with the Tabernacle Choir on its northeastern tour, June 24 to July 12.
Being up close with the choir, she's learning, gives a broader perspective than she imagined. "There's so much more to the choir than a performance," she said. "You see that when you're on tour. There's the interaction with the audience and with each other. You see their grisly schedule."
The first tour on the schedule was June 24 on the 1,200-acre campus of the Interlochen Arts Festival, a venerated music camp that has earned world renown. People who attend music festivals at Interlochen generally "know about music."
Sister Swinton knew the historical background of Interlochen but said she was impressed with how well the choir was received by people she termed "music buffs."
"People planned their whole vacation schedules around going to Interlochen," she said.
The setting is unique for a Tabernacle Choir concert. Looking every bit like the summer camp of its origins with cabins dotting the campus, Interlochen "is in the middle of nowhere," she said. "It was compelling," she said of the setting. Just trees, rippling water and a pleasant summer evening.
If anything could improve upon nature, it was the Tabernacle Choir. "By the time the concert got to the end, that crowd was on its feet four times — before encore numbers," Sister Swinton said. "It was so spontaneous. It wasn't a thank-you-so-much crowd; it was an audience of people leaping to their feet, clapping and cheering. I was in the audience, around no one I knew. From the way they talked about their choir and their sense of connection, I could tell they felt it was their choir."
The next evening, June 25, the choir performed in the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. Never mind that there were some 9,000 people in the arena; the spirit of the choir touched audience members one by one.
"At the end of the concert, people just kept standing there. They didn't want to break the mood and go back out on the street," Sister Swinton said. "They wanted to stay there and feel that resonance, almost a reverence, for what happened to them. When you go on a tour like this, you see that the choir is going out to people who are hungry to feel something inside that they can't find anyplace else."
People identify with the choir. Often, people name a particular song or hymn and say, "I hope they sing that."
Sister Swinton summed it up: "People feel they own a piece of the choir."
No wonder the title of her new book is "America's Choir."
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