Songs of common people wrapped in celestial music.

That is a description of Sea Trek 2001's new oratorio-like musical, "Saints on the Seas."

The work develops its rich orchestral themes from light tunes with lyrics composed from journal entries. It tells the story of the LDS European emigration with European nuance, and even represents a cataclysmic storm at sea. This newly completed work will premiere in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Aug. 9 and be performed at each Sea Trek 2001 port city in Europe and in Madison Square Garden, New York City.

Sea Trek 2001 is a sesquicentennial re-enactment of the emigration of converts from Europe and the British Isles to the United States. It will include nine tall sailing ships traveling to nine cities in Europe and the British Isles, representing the gathering of Saints. Major celebrations will be held in each port city. Then four of the ships will cross the Atlantic to New York City, where the culminating celebration will be held.

The authors of this composition hope it will be an enduring, sophisticated work that will become an important part of Latter-day Saint music. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Estonian National Orchestra will perform the work in some of Europe's finest halls, including the Oslo Concert Hall, the Gothenburg Opera House and the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral.

"There is a superb sense of history coming full circle," said William K. Sadleir, chairman of the Sea Trek Foundation. "We [our immigrant ancestors] left in poverty, often berated as we left, and we are going back to these communities in the posture of gratitude and hosting a major celebration. It puts a glorious exclamation point on this element of history."

He said that, for him, "the highlight will be to be in the audience and listen to the performance and see it all come together. They have done an extraordinary job of capturing the spirit of that era, with a rich array of emotions."

This unusual work harmonizes the strengths of pop lyrics with classical motifs by a creative team of composer/performer Kurt Bestor and songwriter Cori Connors. They worked under the direction of Mark Robinette, also a composer. The soloists will be Metropolitan Opera singer Jenny Welch Babidge and her husband Darrel Babidge; George Dyer, a noted tenor who made guest appearances with the Tabernacle Choir, and Jenny Frogley, a versatile performer who sings both pop and classical music.

Sister Connors, author of music made popular to radio listeners across the nation, researched many journals and then wrote songs of ordinary immigrants. These were intended to revisit the experiences of the first generation of Latter-day Saints, she said. The music is intended to convey the feeling of "what they felt, and what may have compelled our ancestors to become Latter-day Saints and to leave everything familiar and go to this strange place because their hearts told them to."

"We also had a strong impression that we were to remain true to their original stories," she said. In her research, "it was almost as if they were unaware that they had courage." As they emigrated, "it was like there was electricity in the air among the members as they set off each others' energy and encouraged each other as they went."

One of the emigrants featured in the music and lyrics is Jean Rio Baker, mother of seven. She lost her husband before the journey began, and then as she and her children crossed the Atlantic in a sailing ship, she also lost her 5-year-old son, Josiah. He was buried at sea.

"She kept a record of the whole journey," said Sister Connors. "She knew how to communicate. I learned that she had been a songwriter; I connected with her."

The short, bright melodies and songs written by Sister Connors were placed in a symphonic story by Brother Bestor. He also used a reader's theater approach to add narration to the production. "There is a lot of depth to the music," he said, explaining that influences from Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom were incorporated along with Uilleann pipes that augment the orchestra with a regional effect.

Writing the music was a marathon, he said. "I locked myself in a room and have written non-stop. I feel pretty good about it."

His goal for the audience "is to feel as if they are on these ships, and feel a bit of the pain, but then to have the ultimate triumph as they make their way through sickness and disease, as if being on the ships for months. There is a big storm near the end that is cataclysmic, extremely cacophonic. People in the audience will have their breath taken away, and then they will wonder if the immigrants made it. The music suspends, and one by one the voices start emerging from the mist."

The finale will be a moment of connecting those in the audience with those who emigrated, and some present will be related to those who left, he said. The work pays tribute to Europeans as well as Americans.

"We want people to walk out transformed."

Mark Robinette, who is the producer, said, "We wanted it to be a big, glorious orchestral presentation. It had to have more depth, and the correct amount of passion." For that reason, he said, Church members who understand the depth of feeling of the immigrants were invited to compose the work.

"Our whole goal was to recreate the feeling that our ancestors had. Music is the perfect way to do that; it is the most sublime of all languages and suitable for such an important message."

Despite the grandiose nature of the music, the thematic material will appeal to the general public, he said.

This project, he added, is exciting for him because "while it has all the elements of what I do for a living, it is something I am passionate about. This is a way to express my feelings and my faith. The most powerful things about the work are the exact, unedited words that make the spirit of their feelings immediately evident."

A parallel musical effort is also underway with a Sea Trek 2001-sponsored youth group, called T-Minus Friday, which will perform in the "Rock the Dock" celebrations in each port city.

At present, most of the European sailing legs of the re-enactment are sold out, but the crossing is still available, said Brother Sadleir. To help fill these places, a $2,000 scholarship grant is being offered to young adults under 30 to make the Aug. 27-Oct. 4 Atlantic crossing. For more information about the grants or concerts, call (801) 932-7990, or visit the web site: seatrek2001.com


E-mail: jhart@desnews.com