SALT LAKE CITY — The Mormon Arts Center is holding its second annual festival in New York City, featuring artists from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the world over, including four world premieres of new music and the performance of “lost” pieces from well-known Mormon composers.
The three-day festival will take place June 28–30 at the Italian Academy at Columbia University and will bring together people from Angola, Argentina, Canada, China, Kuwait, Spain and across the U.S.
The theme for this year’s festival is “Explorations,” reaching back in time and across the world to find previously unknown or undiscovered artistic riches and sharing them with the world.
“Whether these treasures are things that have been lost and forgotten that need to be found or are present in the now but scattered all over the world and need to be gathered, this theme explores all kinds of Mormon art,” said Richard Bushman, LDS historian and Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University.
The festivities include art exhibitions, concerts, a book launch and numerous talks and panel discussions between artists, animators, composers, authors and scholars.
Bushman and Glen Nelson, writer and founder of the Mormon Artists Group came together to co-found the New York-based nonprofit last year with three purposes in mind: to display and perform Mormon art, to start a journal containing scholarly and critical conversations about Mormon art and to create a sprawling wiki-based Encyclopedia of Mormon art in all its forms, from 1830 to the present.
They found the archive a particularly daunting task, so they decided to begin with music, gathering around 50,000 manuscripts from 1,600 composers from all over the world.
Scott Holden, a concert pianist and professor of keyboard performance at Brigham Young University, went through all of the music to select pieces for the June 29 concert at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall titled “100 Years of Mormon Music.”
“I had a stack over 2 feet tall on my desk,” Holden said. “I wanted to find things that showed the breadth of the compositional styles of the last 100 years and the diversity of composers, representing the broad demographics of the church.”
Holden will also be playing from the manuscripts of recently discovered pieces from two composers with deep Utah connections: James W. McConkie (Bruce R. McConkie’s brother who died from polio at age 32) and Leroy Robertson, former professor and chairman of the music department at both Brigham Young University and University of Utah.
According to Holden, Robertson wrote the tempestuous “Etude” featured in the upcoming performance while he was studying music in Germany in the early 1930s. He heard that a man named Hitler was speaking to the public and forged press credentials to listen. Robertson sat in the box behind Hitler and was sickened by his speech. When he left, he paused to put his leg up on a window ledge and write out this piece.
Holden has been practicing this and the other pieces in the festival for seven or eight hours a day since he put the program together in last November. In order to make the music more widely available, he also recorded a CD of the selections.
An artistic thread
Nelson and Bushman are excited to bring Hildebrando de Melo, an abstract Angolan artist well-known worldwide, to the attention of the American Mormon community, with his exhibit “Nzambi,” about his relationship with God and the effects of the Angolan civil war on him and his family.
The festival will also include the launch of a Mormon Arts Center commissioned book about the history of Mormon film, written by author Randy Astle. The book, “Mormon Cinema: Origins to 1952,” has been in the works for about 20 years.
All of these forms of art coming together might seem a little far-flung, but that’s kind of the point. Bringing things together is “a lot like detective work,” Nelson said. And while all of the pieces are considered Mormon art, they’re not all directly tied to the LDS Church.
“The common thread is that there is no common thread,” Holden said. “This is definitely not going to sound like ‘Music and the Spoken Word.’”
“You don’t have to be a Mormon to do Mormon art,” Bushman said.
The Mormon Arts Center is also moving a little farther away from the more academic approach they took last year, focusing instead on building community and collaboration, trying to gather together artistic minds to solve problems, and teaching children about the arts. For example, the festival will host the world premiere of Utah composer Andrew Maxfield’s “They All Saw a Cat,” a piece for children based on Brendan Wenzel's 2016 Caldecott Honor book of the same name, as well as an interactive world premiere that will rely on the children in the audience to make composition decisions.
“We’re trying to capture the diversity of styles and subject matter — our own range of belief and background is so broad, so very dynamic that one person couldn’t do it,” Nelson said. “Together we can really paint a picture that’s much more inclusive.”
Moving forward, the founders hope the festival will make people aware of just how important art is, especially within the LDS Church and Mormon culture.Comment on this story
“We’re showing that art isn’t just an embellishment,” Bushman said. "It’s not just something pretty to hang on your walls. It’s a serious effort to speak."
If you go …
What: Mormon Arts Center Festival "Explorations"
When: Thursday-Saturday, June 28-30
Where: Italian Academy, 1161 Amsterdam Ave., New York, New York
How much: $50 for a three-day pass, but individual events are priced from free-$20. Tickets are required for all events.
What: "A Century of Mormon Music"
When: Friday, June 29, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Zankel Hall, 881 7th Ave., New York, New York
How much: $20-$30