The camera zeroed in on Casey Elliott as he sang.
Portraying the role of Peter, who had just denied knowing Christ, Elliott violently shouted, “Oh God! What have I done?”
Tears started to roll down his face, first his right cheek and then his left.
It’s a powerful moment, but Gardner didn’t even see it until after the grueling two days of filming were over — during the long hours at Utah Film Studios in Park City, he had been facing away from the singers and conducting the orchestra.
As he prepared the concert film for its theatrical release in March, only then did Gardner see the raw performance from Elliott and the other artists.
And as he took it all in, the composer knew all of the stress and turmoil that went into creating the “Lamb of God” concert film had been worth it.
It had been a big risk. In just three months, the movie transformed from an idea to showing in theaters across the country — to date, it is playing in at least 28 states. Such hastiness could’ve led to poor quality, but the film has a 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and has grossed nearly half a million dollars during its limited release.
There was also the matter of putting the production together during a pandemic — was it safe to bring a group of singers and musicians together, and more importantly, did the singers and musicians feel safe to do it? Finances also would’ve taken a hit if someone got sick and production had to shut down.
There were a lot of unknowns, but live performances of Gardner’s “Lamb of God” have become an Easter time tradition for many. And after a year that saw virtually all performances come to a halt, the composer wanted to do something special.
“At the end of the day … we should go forward and try and just take a step into the dark and hope for the best,” Gardner told the Deseret News. “And that’s what this film was.”
Creating ‘Lamb of God’
Every year, Gardner tries to attend a performance or two of “Lamb of God” in a new location. Last year, he was looking forward to a special production in Switzerland when it got shut down at the onset of the pandemic. When he realized the several dozens of groups that typically perform “Lamb of God” would be unable to do so that Easter season, Gardner launched a virtual singalong and watched people participate from all over the world.
Several months later, the pandemic still loomed large, and an idea that Gardner had developed shortly after writing “Lamb of God” in 2010 again began to take shape: Could it be possible to turn this work into a movie and reach a wide audience?
Near the end of 2020, he had that discussion with Arthur Van Wagenen, a friend and film producer who works for Excel Entertainment. It would be a tight timetable, but Gardner considers himself a procrastinator who thrives under pressure.
In two months, he rearranged “Lamb of God” — a piece written for a full orchestra and choir — so that it could work for a smaller ensemble of 19 musicians. He secured Utah musicians and BYU choral students, and went on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to find singers for the lead roles.
Initially, Gardner had envisioned hiring A-listers like Audra McDonald for the lead parts, but time and resources were limited. Instead, he capitalized on the wealth of talent in Utah, recruiting artists like Elliott — who is in the trio Gentri — Dallyn Vail Bayles and Oyoyo Bonner. But in the process, Gardner also ended up discovering rising stars in New York City like Katherine Thomas and Tyler Hardwick.
Gardner was securing his cast right up until it was time to film. The entire production was then recorded over two days in early February. From there, Gardner would have one month to prepare the film for a theatrical release. He’s not one to miss a deadline, but he came awfully close.
“It was a real roller coaster, but another week of that roller coaster would’ve been nice,” he said with a laugh.
It was just as much of a whirlwind for Hardwick. The artist — who has a few Broadway credits to his name — had never even heard of “Lamb of God” when Gardner contacted him. But after hearing the music, he couldn’t say no.
He signed on and learned the part of Thomas in less than a week. On the day Hardwick was scheduled to fly to Utah — his first trip to the Beehive State — New York was dealing with a nor’easter, so he had to take a train to Washington, D.C., and fly out from there.
Eventually, he made it to the Park City studio, where he heard “Lamb of God” all the way through for the first time and brought his interpretation of Thomas, who initially doubts the resurrection of Christ, to life.
”It was so overwhelming in the best way,” Hardwick said. “It was very powerful. Thomas, he’s judged for one moment of doubt in his life, when we are all three-dimensional human beings. I think the most powerful thing is he has regret but he also has hope.
“This is a piece that I can see being done live across the world after COVID,” Hardwick continued. “And I hope (Gardner) brings me along for the ride, because it was an honor being a part of it.”
Performing ‘Lamb of God’
Right after Hardwick’s big moment in “Lamb of God,” there’s a narration that depicts the resurrected Savior standing on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.
Many of the disciples are out at sea, but eventually, they come to recognize Christ. Peter leaps from the boat and swims vigorously to shore. At this point, the narration comes to a stop, and the orchestra swells into a cinematic interlude that represents Peter’s triumphant return to Christ.
That’s a favorite moment for Nicole Pinnell, who is the solo cellist in “Lamb of God.” And she gets emotional talking about it, because her own separation from her faith lasted for about 20 years.
“That part just struck such a deep place,” Pinnell said through tears. “Christ loves all his second-chance people — and in a way, we’re all second-chance people, we’re all prodigals. ... He just loves us no matter what, all the time. We just need to reach out and take his hand.”
Pinnell has one of the weightier parts in “Lamb of God.” No one is assigned the part of Christ in Gardner’s oratorio. Instead, the voice and emotions of the Savior are expressed through the cello.
It’s not a responsibility Pinnell took lightly.
In fact, after the filming process — when the musicians had finished their 20th hour of playing in two days — Pinnell had requested to rerecord “Gethsemane,” the piece where Christ prays in agony, “Take away this cup from me: Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.”
It was a big and expensive ask, one that would further hold up the orchestra, choir, lights and tech people. But Pinnell wanted to get the piece just right.
The cellist was about to play “Gethsemane” for the final time during that recording session when she noticed some blood on the floor. After playing for so many hours straight, the nail on her right thumb had started to split away from her skin. Pinnell felt searing pain as she drew her bow across the cello, and wondered if she’d be able to pour her best into the piece. It was unlike anything she’d ever experienced before in her performing career.
“In the end, I came to realize that that was a gift because that helped me offer my widow’s mite of sacrifice to the Savior,” Pinnell said. “I just reached as deep as I could to play with such gratitude and such love.”
After rerecording “Gethsemane,” filming on “Lamb of God” came to a close. Pinnell said everyone couldn’t help but cheer.
“We realized that we had done something good and we had succeeded,” the cellist said.
Watching ‘Lamb of God’
Pinnell normally dislikes watching herself play the cello. But since “Lamb of God” hit theaters on March 12, she’s seen it five times.
In his early days as a composer, Gardner said he was frequently told there wasn’t a big audience for sacred orchestral-choral music. But over the years, the audience has always given him a reason to keep moving forward.
The theatrical release comes 11 years after Gardner first recorded “Lamb of God.” The composer still vividly remembers his first live performance of the oratorio, and how after the finale “Here Is Hope” rang out from the stage, a 3,000-seat auditorium in Arizona suddenly felt like holy ground.
Gardner doesn’t expect everyone to feel that way after watching “Lamb of God” — in fact, he knows they won’t. But he does hope that anyone who sees the production will feel some kind of connection, whether it be musically or spiritually or theatrically. Otherwise, he says, he will have failed as a composer.
“What I’d really hope at the end of the day is that they leave feeling a little more hopeful than when they came,” he said. “When I wrote this, that was my No. 1 goal. Whatever hope we can grab onto at any moment — hope is the most important thing in the world.”