Concert Tells Pioneer Legacy through Song
By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer
For the annual Pioneer Day Concert, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square commemorated their own legacy of pioneer immigrants from Wales as they welcomed guest artist Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins.
A singing sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, Miss Jenkins has sold more than seven million albums offering renditions of popular songs, operatic arias, and hymns.
She hails from the village of Neath, in southern Wales, and she spoke of the musical component that is integral to her homeland and culture as she addressed capacity audiences at the concert, which was presented on July 20 and 21 in the 21,000-seat Conference Center auditorium in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.
“I’m not sure what’s in the water we drink in Wales, but it seems that everybody grows up singing,” she said, “and if you can’t carry a tune, well, you just sing anyway.”
At a news conference the day before the first concert performance, Miss Jenkins appeared with choir musical director Mack Wilberg and choir president Mac Christensen. There, Brother Wilberg recounted that a group of 19th-century Welsh immigrants arriving in the Salt Lake Valley as converts to the Church “already had a reputation for singing together, and from that grew what we have today.”
Thus, at the concert, Miss Jenkins spoke of having learned of the choir’s Welsh origins, then turned to the choir members and asked that any who have Welsh ancestry raise their hands.
“Hello, cousins!” she exclaimed in response. “I actually wasn’t expecting this; that’s practically all of you. Brilliant! I’m overwhelmed.
“This next song takes me and my friends in the choir back to our common roots. It’s a Welsh folk song called ‘Cymru Fach,’ and it means ‘Dearest Wales.’ It tells of all the things that those of us from Wales miss while we are away from home.”
She added, referring to the choir, “So I’m thrilled to be able to sing this song with the support of my extended family.”
Miss Jenkins opened her portion of the program with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway show tune “I Could Have Danced All Night.” The inclusion of the song was a nod to the fact that, as she mentioned in her opening greeting, American audiences seem to know her mainly for her appearance as a contestant on the network TV show Dancing with the Stars.
That experience, she said, “was amazing, but it’s something that took me so far away from my comfort zone. And after that hugely wonderful experience, I’m just so thrilled to be here with you tonight doing what comes a little bit more naturally to me.”
She thereafter performed another Broadway selection, “And This Is My Beloved” from Kismet and the popular David Foster composition “My Prayer.” She also performed the operatic selections “Ah, el novio no quere dinero!,” a Sephardic wedding song, and “Habanera” from Carmen.
But there came a point in the program when Miss Jenkins once again left her “comfort zone” to revisit the world of dance. She said that her dance partner on the television show, who had become her dear friend, was at that moment backstage and asked the audience if they would like to meet him. Mark Ballas then came out, and the two, who happened to be in matching costumes, danced the paso doble to the music of “Espana Cani” (“Spanish Gypsy Dance”).
The audience was obviously thrilled at the surprise, which was not on the printed program.
But the most fervent audience reaction came in response to the choir’s performance of “Sing!” based on “Toccata,” from Organ Symphony no. 5, which showcased the artistry of Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott.
“The Joy of Song” was the theme of the concert, which included prerecorded video vignettes of Miss Jenkins, Brother Wilberg, “The Prayer” composer David Foster, and schoolchildren sharing their feelings about music.
“Studies have shown that we start responding to music while we’re still in the womb,” Brother Wilberg said in his vignette. “And then, of course, music accompanies us throughout the remainder of our lives. In fact, you might say that all the milestones of our lives are accompanied by some kind of music, and music certainly transcends all of us. It doesn’t matter what language we speak, what culture we come from, what age we are, or what our beliefs might be. All of those differences can be unified by the beauty and the joy of music.”
Music has helped tell the story of the Mormon pioneer experience, as these annual Pioneer Day concerts illustrate. The choir opened this year’s event with the familiar LDS hymns “They, the Builders of the Nation” and “Come, Come, Ye Saints” as video clips depicting the hardships and heroism of the Mormon pioneers were shown on giant screens in the Conference Center.
Introducing the concert, choir announcer Lloyd Newell said, “They [the pioneers] endured much of hardship, danger, and tedium. Amid each day’s challenges, these determined souls drew strength from their devotion and their hopes, and they found similar sustenance through song. Many sang their way through the long miles of the day. And at night, families and friends gathered around the campfire to join their voices in folk songs, hymns, and ballads.”
The idea that music is just one gift by which a loving Heavenly Father sustains His children was reflected in the closing selections, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”