Living in Utah can be both weird and thrilling. Last night we experienced a bit of both by attending a performance by our local American Festival Chorus, under the baton of Craig Jessop, who used to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and now heads our Department of Music. The evening was to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, the centennial of the NAACP, MLK day, and Obama’s inauguration (though, in this red state, that notable event was underplayed a bit).
The event was in our Kent Concert Hall, which seats 2100, and it was sold out to the very last seat. That was to be expected. Our state, which of course is dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints, has fused U.S. patriotism with Christian eschatology to an extent that would shock any Founding Father into stunned silence. And on this evening, in addition to some spirituals, we were to hear Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” narrated by none other than our U.S. senator, Bob Bennett. And Craig Jessop — who is a very nice, down-to-earth, very capable, and interesting guy — is popularly revered as … I don’t know … St. Peter? Donny Osmond? a cross of the two? Who could possibly resist?
It really was a fine performance. The choir was excellent, as was the orchestra, and the Lincoln portrait was accompanied by a well-executed slideshow of Civil-War era places and figures. At times — particularly at “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — I feared the crowd would go crazy and start tearing up the seat cushions and start crowd surfing. It didn’t happen. But the crowd really went nuts when Pam Laws, a powerful gospel singer, sang some spirituals. She was hauled back onto stage four times to thunderous applause and cheers.
In fact, the crowd went so nuts (really nuts) over Ms. Laws that it might demand further explanation. The whole evening was centered around the notion that “we” (the U.S., Honest Abe, and everyone in the room) had finally overcome slavery. And then out came this African-American singer — so far as I could see, the only nonwhite in an audience of 2100 and a stage of 300 performers. So all the crazy cheering was not only for her stunning talent. It was also to say, “Yeah! You’re a black person! And here’s to say we really really like you!” That was, I must say, sort of weird. Fervently anti-racist to the point of being racist all over again.
But it really was fun to see such a big show, with such an incredibly appreciative audience. I could have done without the “God Bless America” sing-along, and some somewhat awkward thank-yous at the end. But, especially in this time of budgetary concerns, this was exactly the sort of evening a university like ours should put on every six months or so.