I was very blessed to be able to attend my second Dallas Lutheran Hymn Festival this past Sunday at the Meyerson Symphony Center in downtown Dallas. What an amazing experience! For me, the hymn festival was spiritually and professionally encouraging, enriching, and uplifting. If you haven’t attended one of these before, I hope that you can attend the next one in three years.
Let me start with the Meyerson Symphony Center. This is truly a world-class facility. Enter the center into google image search and you’ll see what I mean. The acoustics are fantastic; there is not a bad seat in the house. For me the highlight is probably the 63 stop Fisk pipe organ that towers over the stage. The stage is on three tiers. The first tier was filled with the volunteer mass choir and the brass and timpani players. The second tier was filled with singers from the Children’ Chorus of Greater Dallas (more on them later), and the top tier was filled with the pipe organ, which was played by my college professor Jeffrey Blersch.
The music started with a couple of hymn preludes by the late Paul Manz, who had played for several of the previous The singing began with the hymn “We all believe in one true God”, sung by the children’s chorus. The singing of this hymn was the most beautiful part of the evening’s program. The children sang the hymn with such beauty, purity, and expressiveness that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
We, the assembly, were given the opportunity to sing with the first two hymns “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “O Worship the King”. These are probably not my favorite personal hymns, but they were led in a very appropriate and festive manner.
The first highlight for me after the children was the hymn “O Sing of Christ”. The text for the hymn is by contemporary hymn writer Stephen Starke. Like many of Starke’s hymns, it praises Christ for coming to undo what was done by the fall into sin. Blersch’s organ playing was expressive and full of lots of lush harmonies. On this hymn, the assembly was also given the opportunity to sing one stanza unaccompanied. It is truly a beautiful thing when 2000 voices join together in that way.
The next hymn, “My Song is Love Unknown” included an interpretive organ stanza that used somewhat esoteric, dissonant harmonic language. The organist truly preaches as he played on this hymn, proclaiming the Gospel to us through the words of the hymn. This was followed by Charles Ore’s setting of “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright”. Hearing Ore’s music brought a smile to my face simply because you can’t hear an Ore arrangement and not know it.
After the hymn “Creator Spirit, Heavenly Dove”, the children’s choir sang a solo piece, “Create in me” by Paul Bouman. I was again blown away by their musicality. They sing with an expressiveness and maturity that is a credit to the young musicians and especially to their director, Cynthia Nott.
After Blersh’s arrangement of the hymn “Water, Blood, and Spirit Crying” (which I still like despite singing the hymn 500 times in college), we sang the evening hymn “O Light Whose Splendor”, one of my favorites. Blersch played an extended, expressive introduction that showed off the full dynamic range of the Fisk organ and really brought out the expressive nature of the melody. We ended on the hymn “Voices Raise to You We Offer”. The arrangement was festive, grand, and appropriate to end such an amazing event.
The event itself was sold out. This fact is very encouraging to me as a lover of the hymnody of the church. For one night I didn’t hear things like “hymns are only for old people” or “in twenty years no one will be singing hymns anymore”. Lutherans from across the state paid money, chartered buses, and traveled distances to participate in singing our hymnody, the thing that Lutherans do best. The evangelical megachurch down the street may be able to put on a great rock concert and light show, but they won’t be able to put on such an amazing hymn festival. Why? Because they don’t value organists enough to have someone who plays on the level of a Jeffrey Blersch; because the children are jumping up and down to praise choruses instead of being engaged in meaningful choral music, and because they simply don’t teach our sing-able, edifying hymnody. It makes me think that maybe it’s time for us in the Lutheran church to stop chasing after the evangelical worship practices and instead focus on Lutheran worship and hymnody that is truly centered around the Gospel, that celebrates our heritage, and that eagerly accepts new things that truly fit who we are.