Saturday, June 15, 2013

A choral phenomenon pays us a visit, 102 years after the first time


The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is so much an institution that its thorough preparation of a variety of choral music can be taken for granted.  Nonetheless, it's a treat to hear that sound in the flesh, as a crowded Bankers Life Fieldhouse learned Friday night — the first time an Indianapolis audience has had that privilege since 1911. The local partner facilitating the historic return was the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, under its formal name, the Indiana  Symphony Society.

There is a finish and roundedness to the MTC's  presentation that seems the essence of professionalism, though in fact the choir and the accompanying Orchestra at Temple Square are all dedicated amateurs. No doubt they are schooled in the ensemble's prestige and history as well as in its music.

The 360 singers, standing ramrod straight (with a few planned exceptions, notably the Nigerian carol "Betelehemu," when they swayed, raised their hands and shouted), were never less than impressive in the two-hour program, culminating in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Then a brief parade of encores followed, beginning with the winning "people's choice," "God Bless America."

The legacy of the choir, as an outgrowth of a band of hearty 19th-century religious pioneers, is upheld mainly in the choice of inspirational and uplifting music. Two hymns from the Welsh tradition made a fervent opening set Friday in the second stop of the choir's Midwestern tour.

The program proceeded through a wealth of brief, tidily arranged numbers. To hear such large forces move briskly, never lumbering, through the intricacies of  the "Gloria" from Dvorak's Mass in D and "Cum sancto spiritu"from Rossini's Petite messe solennelle was a pleasure. Some of the short phrases in the latter seemed too accented and bitten off, but there was no doubt as to the precise interpretive intention of the performance.

As suitable as the orchestral accompaniment was in most of the program, the opportunity  to savor the uniformity and clear projection of the choir's sound without instruments (or with percussion instruments only, as in a Sephardic wedding song and the exuberant Nigerian carol) was offered repeatedly. From "Rock-a My Soul" to Gretchaninoff's "Nunc dimittis" (The Song of Simeon), many styles of self-sufficient choral singing got effusive, well-coordinated representation.

My choice for a favorite representative moment in the show displaying the choir at its best? When the men sang the final verse of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The choir's version of their "greatest hit" downplays the aggressive martial imagery of Julia Ward Howe's poem, omitting the third and fourth verses, and letting the men establish the hushed, sacred ambiance of the final verse, accompanied only by solo harp.

"In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me: As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on."

A slight emendation reflects the choir's determination always to deliver an upbeat message: "Let us live to make men free," they sang. And the men filled those phrases with well-supported ardor, giving the words the special meaning they must have for Mormons, who acknowledge a New World extension of the Christian faith while looking back to the original ministry of Jesus in first-century Palestine. Dying for both freedom and holiness is a cause to which many can rally, and may have had particular survival value for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. So, while no proselytizing is a watchword of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's tours, the concert connection to the church's essence is unmistakable.