Sissel sings from the heart in Salt Lake City
Scandinavian superstar reunites with Tabernacle Choir for Pioneer Day Concert—and makes time to talk with Lori Ann Reinhall
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
It’s not every day that you get the chance to hear the Norwegian songbird and national treasure Sissel sing live, let alone sit next to her and interview her in person. But as I learned in Salt Lake City on July 19, dreams really do come true.
I started listening to Sissel over 30 years ago at the beginning of her career. For me, the young Norwegian soprano brought something fresh and new to Norwegian music. I was learning Norwegian at the time, and I not only enjoyed the pure beauty of her voice, but the lyrics spoke to me. From the very beginning, Sissel has had an extraordinary talent to bring something unique to her music, touching her listeners in a very personal way.
She was born Sissel Kyrkjebø in Bergen in 1969, where she started singing in a children’s choir when she was only 8 years old. Her voice stood out, and by age 14, she was singing on Norwegian television. At 16, she was invited to perform at the interval act of the Eurovision song contest held in her hometown, and she was on her way to both national and international fame. She recorded her first album, simply called Sissel, and she has been known by her first name ever since.
During the span of her career, Sissel has performed with some of the biggest voices on the international stage: Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Josh Groban, to name a few. She was the haunting voice heard in the soundtrack of the film Titanic. Acclaimed as one of the greatest crossover singers of our time, she is musically at home whether she is singing an operatic aria, a Norwegian folk song, a love song from the American songbook, a Nashville hit, or a gospel hymn.
I first met Sissel briefly after a Christmas concert in Drammen a few years ago. I had been lucky enough to be sitting a row away from her husband Ernst Ravnaas and was bold enough to speak to him after the performance. He took me backstage for a brief but memorable moment. When I heard that Sissel would be performing with the Tabernacle Choir for the Pioneer Day Concert in Salt Lake City this summer, I knew immediately that I would make the pilgrimage there.
The concert tickets—all 42,000 of them for two nights of performances—were free, a gift of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the greater community. They are not easy to obtain, so as soon as they were released, I went online to get one, and as fortune would have it, I won the lottery. For me, it would be another once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I wrote to Sissel’s manager to request an interview for The Norwegian American. I was thrilled to hear back that I had won the lottery twice, that Sissel had to agreed to meet with me.
Sissel is no stranger to her fans in Salt Lake City. She first performed there with the Tabernacle Choir in 2005 for the centennial celebration of the dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden, and then again in 2006 to perform and record the famous Christmas concert that aired on PBS. It was a match made in heaven.
When I asked Sissel how it felt to be back in Salt Lake City, she answered without hesitation that it felt like “coming home.” The Tabernacle Choir is very special to Sissel, and she takes inspiration from it, not only because of the high level of professionalism, but because the musicians are so dedicated to their music.
“They are beautiful people, who love what they are doing,” she said. “And they make me want to perform at my very highest level: I have to step on my toes and rise to the occasion.” When I asked Sissel about the many high points in her career, she called out her performances at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, the Titanic recordings, and especially the performances in Salt Lake City. “The moments with the choir and orchestra at Temple Square go straight to your heart—it’s like a sacred moment—so strong.”
Ron Cutler Gunnell, executive producer and assistant to the president of the Tabernacle Choir, first reached out to Sissel about performing in Salt Lake City. Over the years, he has brought an array of stars to perform there, including Angela Lansbury, Walter Cronkite, and the renowned bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. But according to Gunnell, it is Sissel who has always connected most deeply with her audiences. “Sissel’s musical philosophy is totally in line with the choir,” he said. “The audience in 2006 felt it more than anyone has ever since. We experience the reflection of her spirit in her voice.”
Gunnell explained that everyone involved with the choir and orchestra at Temple Square loves what they do, and of the 700 people involved, only 13 are paid. A larger number of professional musicians are involved, but they are not paid either. “There are no union rules,” said Gunnell. “Everyone gives from their heart.”
“You have to be honest with the music that you do,” Sissel said. “I can only do music that I believe in: there is a need to feel comfortable with the music.” Sissel wants to share a message, the meaning of the lyrics, the joy of the music, the creative experience. It is this musical honesty that enables her to take virtually any song and make it her own. Even though Sissel sings songs previously recorded by other famous artists, the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, they always come across as something genuine, something fresh, something new.
Beginnings in Bergen
With my own love for the city of Bergen, I asked Sissel about her formative years there. Although she hasn’t lived there since she was 19, she still considers it her home. With its mountains, fjords, and forests, it is the fundament of who she is. Being out in nature is very important to her; it nourishes her soul; it is her inspiration.
We talked about other influences, and again she returned to the children’s choir, where her love of music took root and grew. Its director, Felicity Laurence, a transplanted New Zealander, had a very special relationship to music and the children, with the belief that every child should have the right to sing and enjoy music.
The Bergen children’s choir sang all kinds of music, with few boundaries. Laurence even worked with a deaf girl who was very musical, teaching her how to feel the resonance in the sounds. Sissel took my arm to show me how it worked, and I felt how intimate the connection must have been. For Sissel and the other children, it was all about experiencing the joy of the music. This joy has endured for Sissel as an artist, a treasure that she can share with others.
In recent years, Sissel’s life has undergone a number of changes. Most importantly, she moved back to Norway after living in Copenhagen for many years. It was a big move, and Sissel took two and a half years off from touring. It was important for her to be there for her two daughters as they adjusted to a new school and social environment. At the same time, it gave her a chance to explore new directions as an artist. She formed her own label, Early Bird Records, and her website www.sisselmusic.com has undergone a complete redesign.
The Norwegian soprano has long been known as the “Queen of Christmas” (she’s collaborated on 10 holiday releases), and she is now back on the road in Scandinavia and Germany with a new holiday show. With Nordic classics, gospel favorites, and popular hits, she performs to a full house wherever she goes. “With so many performances in such a short amount of time, you become a family when you go on tour together,” Sissel remarked. “There is a special bonding, which also makes the performances so special.”
Most importantly, during her sabbatical, Sissel had time to explore more music, and as a result she is releasing a new song recording every Sunday for one year. The project consists of 50 songs, with 50 music videos, and 50 talks about the songs. The original intention was to celebrate the joy of love with happy songs, but soon Sissel discovered that not all love songs are all that happy—but that is part of the experience of life.
Only recently, Sissel turned 50, which almost seems unreal. To see her face-to-face, she is so beautiful, so full of life and energy, after having packed the accomplishment of several lifetimes into just over three decades. I was filled with gratitude. The youngest person ever to be knighted a Knight in the 1st Class by the Order of St. Olav, with millions of fans around the globe, Sissel took time for me and the readers of The Norwegian American. It was a profound honor and joy to meet Norway ‘s national treasure and gift to the world.
Pioneer Day Concert
In Utah, July 24 is Pioneer Day, a holiday celebrated with a week of parades, fireworks, rodeos, and other festivities, including a grand concert with the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra. It commemorates the arrival of Brigham Young and the other LDS pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 after have been forced out of Nauvoo, Ill., and other locations in the eastern United States.
During her week in Utah, Sissel learned that Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish immigrants were among the early Latter-day Saints in Utah. In “Music for a Summer Evening,” the interweaving of Nordic culture with the pioneer experience created a tapestry of music from both American and Scandinavia, across a variety of genres.
The focus on Norwegian culture also manifested in the concert’s stage decor, with colorful panels of rosemaling in shades of red, blue, green, and yellow, complemented by large, elaborate floral arrangements. Throughout the concert, lighting effects added drama. But when she appeared on stage, all eyes were on Sissel, who first appeared in a stunning red caftan with flowing, sweeping lines.
“It is wonderful to be here with you and with this inspiring choir and orchestra,” Sissel said as she greeted her audience. “I just have to say, I love to sing with you. And I love to sing from my heart to you.”
And sing from her heart she did. Her opening song, “Like an Angel Passing through My Room” by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvæus, set an introspective mood, as she and the musicians took the audience on a journey along the Mormon Pioneer Trail.
The 90-minute concert went by quickly, moving from high point to high point. Under the direction of Mack Wilberg, the choir and orchestra lived up to its reputation as the “choir of choirs.” But for me, the most poignant moments were with Sissel, who is a magnificent storyteller, both in her song and with the spoken word.
This became especially apparent in her interpretation of “Eatnemen Vuelie” or “Song of the Earth,” the Danish hymn we know as “Beautiful Savior.” Frode Fjellheim’s 2002 arrangement based itself on the yoiking of the Sámi people of the North. The rhythms and the repetitive sounds of wagon wheels rolling across the plains were evoked. “Just hearing it, you can imagine those Nordic pioneers singing as they drove their wagons and pulled their handcarts west,” Sissel said.
The audience was intrigued to learn that this traditional music became the basis for “Vuelie,” the opening song of Disney’s movie Frozen. “That’s something you didn’t know,” Sissel remarked, as she heard a hum of recognition from the crowd.
Throughout the evening, Sissel sang several songs in Norwegian and Swedish. “Eg veit i himmerik ei borg” sounded out as a pilgrim’s prayer, and she moved the audience with her rendition of “O store Gud.” The audience was moved by the story of the Swedish pastor Carl Broberg, who was met by a great storm while walking home in his parish town of Kronobäck. “The storm had been great, but the peace that came after was even greater, “ Sissel told us, so great that Broberg was inspired to write his hymn that we know as “How Great Thou Art.”
But it was Sissel’s rendition of “Slow Down” by American composer Chuck Girard that brought the audience to a spontaneous standing ovation. With its quiet nuances, it brought home the message that in our hectic world, “to be able to hear the still voice in our hearts, we have to slow down.” It hit home.
The tempo of the concert picked up again with the choir’s “Gospel Train” medley, which included well-known American folk songs. This year marks the 150th Golden Spike anniversary when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in 1869. Other gospel songs followed, included Sissel’s moving rendition of Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom.”
The concert closed with a dramatic delivery of the English folk song, “Thou Gracious God, Whose Mercy Lends,” in a grand choral arrangement by Wilberg. Applause and cheers resounded throughout the hall as the audience was once again brought to its feet.
As someone who owns everything that Sissel has ever recorded, nothing can match seeing and hearing her live. Even in an audience of 21,000, you feel as if she is reaching out directly to you. Her voice blended magnificently with the choir and orchestra. There was not a lagging moment, as concertgoers were lifted up.
But perhaps most importantly, at the concert end, there was a universal message to take away, one of tolerance and hope. I am not a Latter-day Saint, but I felt inspired by the story of a group of brave people who made their way through the desert to practice their religion and build a new life. Their journey was not unlike the journey of many other migrants and immigrants around the world today. They, too, are searching for a place where they might build a thriving community for themselves and their children, a place where they can live in prosperity and peace.
Sissel’s performance at the Pioneer Day Concert this July can be viewed in its entirety at her website at www.sisselmusic.com/category/live-performances, and fans can look forward to a PBS special around the concert in 2020.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.