Madeleine Festival isn’t just filled with religious music

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Audiences members listen as the Cantorum Chamber Choir performs at The Cathedral of the Madeleine on April 28, 2019. The performance was the inaugural event of this year's Madeleine Festival.

The Madeleine Festival is different from any other music festival in Utah, for one very obvious reason — it takes place in the Cathedral of the Madeleine. And performing in the Roman Catholic church is not like performing anywhere else in the state.

“There’s a look on performers’ faces that I’ve come to know,” said Patricia Wesson, director of development at the downtown Salt Lake City cathedral. “It’s this very alive, sort of luminous look. I’m very envious of it, I can tell you that much.”

It’s a singular experience not just for the performers, but for concertgoers.

“It is an amazing space in so many ways,” Wesson said. “You can look around and be filled with enjoyment, touched by the artistry that’s within the cathedral. The feeling just can’t be matched.”

Wesson oversees the selection of performers for the Madeleine Festival and they’re approved by Gregory Glenn, director of liturgy and music. They’re looking for performers of “cathedral quality” — with “a certain amount of professionalism, achievement, quality to them,” Wesson said.

But there’s a “misconception” that the performances are all nothing but religious music. That hasn’t been the case in many years, Wesson said, “but that is a perception that’s been hard to break. We’re looking for a mix.”

So while the festival includes “things that might be somewhat unexpected sometimes,” she said, “we do look for some spiritual aspect. It could be a gospel tune or a hymn, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s the one thing that we ask — have some sort of aspect of the spirituality of your culture, of yourselves. A nod, if you will, to performing in the cathedral.”

One of her personal favorites was Kenshin Taiko SLC — drummers who perform traditional Japanese percussion. “Just seeing the juxtaposition of the drummers and the cathedral was way cool,” Wesson said.

The Cantorum Chamber Choir kicked off the current Madeleine Festival on April 28. Cantorum primarily sings Christian music but is not affiliated with any religious group.

“It was a great experience,” said choir member David Monson. His favorite moments came while performing from the choir loft in the back, with a view of the gothic interior of the cathedral; and while performing the song “Stars.”

“You could look up and see the stars in the sky painted in that part of the cathedral,” he said. “It was amazing.”

The Cantorum Chamber Choir opened its program with “Conversion of Saul.” The choir sings in Latin, and the song “sounds like you’re slaughtering and binding with chains,” Monson said.

“It’s Saul persecuting the saints in the early church. And it’s just not something you’d ever hear the Tabernacle Choir sing,” Monson said with a laugh. “It just sounds like — what the hell is this? It’s not something you’d expect to hear in a cathedral, and yet it is a very religious song.”

Cantorum’s program also included five Hebrew love songs and the folk song “Shenandoah.”

The acoustics in the cathedral “are very different from most places where we perform and rehearse,” Monson said. “It’s such a big space” with an “echo-y effect.”

Choir members discovered they had to “pronounce the consonants so much more dramatically ... otherwise they sort of just get washed out.” And they had to hold a break in one of the songs for “another second or two to let the sound fully fill and dissipate. ... It just kept going and going.”

So far this season, the Madeleine Festival has featured the Cantorum Chamber Choir and Te’ Azul, a jazz quartet that includes Brigham Young University music professor Steve Lendeman on piano, University of Utah music professor Geoffrey Miller on guitar, Chilean violinist Flavia Cervinco-Wood and bassist Harold Carr. Upcoming performers are:

Concert pianist Mary Anne Huntsman (Sunday, May 12) • Since Huntsman made her debut as a soloist at Carnegie Hall in 2014, she has performed in the United States, Europe and Asia. She’s the daughter of former Utah governor and current U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr.

The Choir of the Cathedral of the Madeleine (Sunday, May 19) • The choir, which includes both adults and choristers from the choir school, sings a variety of liturgical music — from Gregorian chants to present-day music.

Singer/songwriter Maxine Soakai (Sunday, May 26) • Soakai began singing at the age of 5 and taught herself how to play the piano and guitar. While studying music at BYU, Soakai recorded a Christian album called “The Light of Christ.”

All performances begin at 8 p.m. and admission is free. The Cathedral of the Madeleine is at 309 E. North Temple.

The Madeleine Festival is just one of several musical events at the cathedral.

Throughout the year, there’s the Eccles Organ Festival and performances by Choir of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the Salt Lake Children’s Choir, Utah Chamber Artists and occasional other concerts.For more information, got to utcom.org.

“We want to share the cathedral with as many people as we can,” Wesson said. And there’s one thing all festival performers have in common, she said — they want to return and perform in the cathedral again.

“There really hasn’t been anybody who hasn’t said to me, ‘I would be happy to come back any time you’ll have me,’” Wesson said.

Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.

Editor’s note: The owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune is Paul Huntsman, who is the uncle of Mary Anne Huntsman.