Today, a new movie opens in theaters. It’s not a feature film but a concert film. The concert is “Lamb of God” by Rob Gardner. “Lamb of God” is an oratorio about the last days of Jesus Christ. Gardner recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra and released the album in 2010. Eleven years later, it’s in movie theaters.
Thousands of musicians perform the music every year around Easter time. Many have made it a tradition. Gardner even tries to attend at least one performance every year. In 2020, he had plans to go to Switzerland for the Swiss premiere of the production. But then COVID-19 hit, and like all other performances, it was canceled.
Gardner told BYU-Idaho Radio he has wanted to have this production become a movie for years. He even started writing a new song to be used in a feature film. However, he didn’t feel it was the right time to make it happen, until now.
“It seemed like, maybe this year is the right time to do it in a year when live performances are less possible, if not possible at all,” Gardner said. “It’s never the wrong time to bring people hope, and that brings people together and that talks of Christ and rejoices in Christ and so it just felt like, if we can, we will, and the challenges can be overcome.”
He became serious about the project in December when a friend asked him about creating a concert film. He quickly set to work. He knew he couldn’t have the regular number of people involved so he reorchestrated the music for a smaller orchestra, adapted the songs for a smaller choir and searched for a venue. By the first week in February, Gardner, a cast of soloists, a choir, an orchestra and a whole crew were in Park City, Utah at the Utah Film Studios ready to record the concert with COVID-19 restrictions in place.
“The big challenge was choirs are used to standing shoulder to shoulder and hearing each other and we knew they had to be six feet apart and so what we decided early on is, 'OK, all these things that seem like challenges and weaknesses, how do we turn them into strengths for this performance?'" he said.
Gardner brought in a 19-piece orchestra and 29 voices for the choir. The result, he said, is a more intimate production. The story is the same, but he said even he started to notice things about the music and the story that he never had before.
“I wrote it and in doing it this way I'm discovering things I didn't realize I put in there,” he said.
“Lamb of God” is well-known by so many people. It’s been compared to Handle’s “Messiah” or Mozart’s “Requiem.” Many of the lyrics come directly from the New Testament and so the work speaks to Christian denominations across the world. But that doesn’t mean everyone is familiar with the production. For example, Oyoyo Bonner had heard of “Lamb of God” but hadn’t really listened to the music. That is, until she got a call from Gardner asking if she’d send him a demo of a song.
“I went on iTunes and I just listened to the whole thing from start to finish just so that I could grasp the feeling,” Bonner said. “Where I didn’t know anything before, I’m enlightened and excited and can’t wait for everyone to see it in theaters March 12.”
Bonner got the solo part of Mary of Bethany, which is mostly narration. The character narrates the story of the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. Bonner said that’s because the two are tied together when Judas wonders why Mary would use expensive oil to anoint the feet of Jesus.
“It’s just that kind of intricacy that makes (the story) a bit more interesting,” Bonner said.
Bonner realized the scope of the project when she walked into the studio and saw so many people there. She said Gardner quickly gained her respect and the whole cast and crew worked hard to help him realize his vision for the concert film, even if he asked them to sing the parts over and over and over again.
“We did the final song, maybe like 11 times in a row, just the first part because he wanted us all to have our best shot and that was so comforting,” she said. “Just to see his passion in that, in wanting everything to be perfect for people who are watching it and the perfect experience for us to go back and be like, ‘Wow, yeah, we did that 13 times because he knew that I had this in me,’ it was really cool.”
Josie Larsen had a similar experience. She was asked to be the director of the choir. Larsen is a vocal performance major at Brigham Young University where she is the president of the BYU Singers choir. She said she didn’t have to audition for her role in “Lamb of God.” Gardner called up the choir director and asked for the best of the best. The director looked through students’ BYU choir audition scores and turned in the list. Because Larsen was the president of BYU Singers, she ended up directing the choir.
The recording days were 10-hour days. They happened in the first week of February, which is right in the middle of the semester for the choir.
“A lot of us were just trying to keep up with school and put everything we could into this production,” Larsen said. “It was definitely stressful, at times, but I would absolutely do it again.”
Larsen said working with Gardner was an amazing experience. She recalled a moment when the choir had sung their big number, “I Am the Resurrection” a couple of times already, but Gardner asked them to do it again. She said the choir, orchestra and Gardner all looked at each other and said, “Ok, let’s get down, let’s do it and let’s all work together.”
“We were just singing with as much passion and faith as we could and the orchestra was playing with that much as well,” she said. “I had been, honestly, been crying during that last take because I was so overwhelmed by the Spirit that I felt.”
“All the stress of that day then turned into this overwhelming gratitude for them and for everybody's sacrifices they were making to be there,” Gardner said.
With the recording finished in February the edits had to be finished quickly for a March 12 release. Gardner was looking over final edits as late as March 5, the week before the movie’s release. Gardner said there is a sense of relief but he’s a little anxious as people go to watch it. He wants them to experience the central message of the oratorio.
“The whole reason for this work to exist is to scream to people that there is hope. In the darkest moments where we think hope is dead, hope is born in that moment because despair is the birth of hope because it’s only in despair that we know that we need to reach for something,” Gardner said.
The “Lamb of God” concert film is now in theaters. It’s available in several local cities including Idaho Falls, Rexburg, Blackfoot, Burley, Twin Falls and Afton, Wyoming. To order your tickets online go to lambofgodmovie.com.