SALT LAKE CITY – Like all musicians, John Richardson brings his own unique experiences to his job – that of cantor at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. However, his experiences are unusual: Richardson has had little formal music training and, as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he faced, in many ways, a steep learning curve when he started working, he said.
Prior to being hired in May 2020 by the cathedral’s assistant music director Dr. Gabriele Terrone, Richardson was unfamiliar with Catholic rites and music. While Terrone essentially gave him a crash course in the liturgy, Richardson said his first experiences were somewhat rocky and he was grateful for the patience of those Mass-goers who were present.
“I remember my first Mass; there were lots of times when everybody would kneel, and I would just stay standing at the cantor’s stand because I had no idea what to do,” said Richardson, now a senior at Brigham Young University. “It was a lot to take in at the beginning.”
Richardson is one of four adult cantors at the cathedral. He is assigned to sing at two Masses every other weekend but sometimes sings more often. He also leads at weddings, funerals, Quinceañera and other events. Having served a mission for his church in Ecuador, Richardson is fluent in Spanish and has been able to lead at the Spanish Masses.
Richardson’s love of liturgical music began with an annual family tradition of listening to the Kings College Choir’s “Ceremony of Lessons and Carols” at Christmas time. Although he took piano lessons and sang in a church choir, Richardson had no formal vocal training until partway through his education at BYU, where he became a member of the university’s concert choir and then the BYU Singers.
Once he decided to sing professionally, his talent helped him excel quickly. He attributes part of his success to his ability to imitate others. While he was growing up, his father enjoyed listening to opera and Richardson would often, in fun, mimic the performers.
“I think I got pretty good at mimicking other people’s voices and how they sang, so when my voice teacher asked me to sing ‘like this’ I would sing it back at him, and he would be like, ‘Wow, that sounded really good,’” he said.
Later, during a study abroad experience at the University of Cambridge, he attended a King’s College Choir choral evensong.
“I was just stunned, blown away; I loved everything about it: how beautiful the acoustics were, the style of music, the robes, the candles,” he said. “I was convinced that I needed to figure out how I could start performing that kind of music in those kinds of spaces.”
“I remember that being one of the most potent spiritual moments of my life, just hearing that sound and all of that worship towards God,” he added.
After his return to BYU, Richardson saw a posting for the position of cantor at the cathedral. When he applied for the position, he had no idea what he was getting into. He didn’t even know what a cantor was. His own ignorance gave him courage, he said.
“I just thought it sounded awesome; I thought, ‘Sing in the cathedral? Great – sign me up,’” he said. “If I had known everything it entailed, maybe I would have been too intimidated to audition.”
Richardson felt his audition with Terrone went poorly, but he was hired for the position.
“He had enough training to start working,” Terrone explained. ““I could see that he had the skillset that was necessary to be successful, to learn successfully what was needed. He has done very well, and we are sorry to see him go.”
Richardson said he has learned much during his time at the cathedral.
“It has definitely heightened my ability to work on the fly, to be able to work as an ensemble with Gabriele, with the choir, to make sure we’re all on the same page while music is happening,” he said.
Richardson has also experienced a deepening of his own faith through his job as cantor.
“I’ve really enjoyed being in that space where they create such a holy and sacred atmosphere,” he said. “It is all just centered on Jesus Christ and on his sacrifice and on his grace. It’s hard not to feel a certain amount of spirituality and love when you’re surrounded, and all your senses, the smell from the incense, and the sights and the sounds, just everything is centering your entire body’s experience on Jesus. Definitely, for me, it has been a huge positive. I have learned things about my own faith and my own belief in Jesus Christ and my understanding of him. I have sincerely enjoyed my time in terms of my faith and spirituality while at the cathedral.”
In September, Richardson will travel to England to pursue a master’s degree in history at the University of Oxford; he has also been accepted into The Choir of The Queen’s College. He doubts he will return to Utah after he completes his one-year master’s program, but wherever he goes, he plans to find a choral group where he can continue to sing liturgical music, he said.
Recently the BYU Radio show “In Good Faith” aired an interview with Richardson about his experience singing at the cathedral. The recording of that interview may be found at https://www.byuradio.org/e8e4d88b-80b1-4baf-8d32-68afc6dea848.