James DeMars could change the name of his composition "An American Requiem" to a single word that describes what it was as the Tabernacle Choir premiered it Aug. 4-5 in Washington's John F. Kennedy Center. He could call the work "Triumph!" And emphasis could be placed on the exclamation mark.
"The choir surpassed my expectations," declared the composer, who said he was walking on air after the experience of directing the choir in the national premiere. "I couldn't imagine nearly 300 people singing with the clarity and diction and intonation that this group has. It is utterly professional. I was absolutely thrilled. I frequently found myself thinking, `I can't believe I'm here.' "Dr. DeMars' pleasure was visible. His broad smile communicated the message, "Life doesn't get much better than this." After he descended from the stage - and came down to earth a little - he confirmed that he was "an extremely happy man."
Directing the choir in performing his work has been a major highlight of his life, Dr. DeMars emphasized. "These people scared me at first," he said, referring to the nearly 300 singers he had never met until just a few days before the choir left on its tour. "But they've been very nice to me. There is good, honest communication. They are sincere. That's very important to me because most of the time I'm alone in my room composing and sometimes people scare me. But I got to know them and realized these people are kind."
He said that other than the choir's sound and its polished presentations of concerts and musical skills, he was impressed with a sense of its members "working together, a sense of not letting a person's ego get in the way of music, because the music is why everyone is there. We all want the sensation of knowing we are producing something unique, a beautiful and perfect sound. You have to work together to do that. Working together is probably the hardest thing we have to do."
"An American Requiem" was brought to the attention of the Tabernacle Choir by John Wiscombe, a member of the Tempe 14th Ward, Tempe Arizona South Stake, who heads a business of organizing music festivals and concert tours. He heard a preliminary recording of "An American Requiem" that was made in Arizona last year.
"My first impression was that this was a work the Tabernacle Choir should sing," he related. "I thought it belonged to the Tabernacle Choir. I sent a copy of the tape to Dr. Ottley, wondering if he would be interested in the choir performing the requiem. He called several days later and was very impressed with the music. It snowballed from there."
Brother Wiscombe added: "I think the choir brings a spirituality to the piece that no other group can do. It was a stretch for the choir, a rather difficult work. I thought it was a unique opportunity for the choir to make a statement about the Church being willing to reach out to all faiths, welcoming all races and ethnic groups. Reconciliation is the spirit of this requiem, which was written to honor American heroes. It was fitting that the Tabernacle Choir should be the spokesmen to honor those heroes and to do it in Washington, D.C. in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Their performance was fabulous. I've never heard the choir sing better."