For more than a decade Kurt Bestor’s film scores, television themes, compositions and carols have found enthusiastic listeners. His credits include more than 30 film scores and more than 40 themes for national TV programs and commercials. It is Bestor’s music that has introduced Good Morning America, NFL Monday Night Football, and ABC’s Sunday Night Movie; he has scored TBS’s Wild! Life Adventures and the IMAX film Great American West, and he won the Outstanding Film Score Award at the New York Film and Television Festival for his music for PBS’s A More Perfect Union. Bestor was also awarded an Emmy for his collaboration with Sam Cardon on the original music for ABC’s coverage of the 1988 Winter Olympics. For thousands throughout the western U.S., a Kurt Bestor concert has become a traditional part of Christmas.
Kurt Bestor and special guest singers perform Prayer of the Children.
In an interview with Meridian’s editor, Kurt shared the man behind the mystique.
It was a dark, spare Christmas Eve in Yugoslavia when policemen pounded on the door of the missionary apartment where Elder Kurt Bestor lived. Without specifying their offense, the officers took the frightened missionaries to jail, and they spent that night which had always been magical at home, in a cell shivering and wondering what was going to become of them. The silence of that night was interrupted by the pounding of their hearts. It wasn’t until morning they found out the reason for their arrest. They had forgotten to register their presence in the town.
It was only one unique moment in a mission far different than Kurt had imagined. Called to Yugoslavia where missionaries mostly planted those proverbial seeds, Kurt gave piano lessons and sometimes performed, made friends, and hoped for baptisms. The Church didn’t have materials in the language, and Belgrade had only two members. “I don’t know if I was planting seeds or digging ditches,” Kurt said.
“It was difficult, very lonely,” he continued, “and I didn’t get much mail from home. At one point about six months into the mission, I became so completely discouraged that I wanted to quit. Just before I called the mission president to tell him, I went behind my house, knelt down, and said a prayer. The answer to my prayer wasn’t some big amazing thing, but a sure feeling came that I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do. That’s all I needed to know. I didn’t baptize anybody on my mission, but it felt good to know I had the Lord’s support.
Later Kurt scored a biographical film on the life of President Hinckley and was moved that the prophet, too, had come to a point in his mission when he was discouraged. During the production, someone suggested that they leave that part out, but President Hinckley insisted it stay in. “I was grateful,” said Kurt.
A Heart for the Children
Yet Kurt’s mission marked him in a way that he could never have foreseen at the time. Later when war broke out, and Yugoslavia splintered into warring factions with Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians hating and butchering each other, Kurt’s heart was aching. What came to him– haunted him–were the faces of the children he had known.
“Those children didn’t hate anybody,” he said. “They didn’t care about who owned the land, or who had the power or the money. These are adult neuroses. They just wanted to have a mom and dad and a place to play.”
Creating the Song
Without any thought of performing it, but with a need to express his frustration and love, Kurt sat down and wrote a song-a song he assumed would be just for himself. He called it “The Prayer of the Children.” The lyrics were simple, the music an expression of the intensity and pleadings in Kurt’s own soul:
Can you hear the prayer of the children,
On bended knee in the shadow of an unknown room?
Empty eyes with no more tears to cry,
Turning heavenward for the light.
Crying Jesus, help me to see the morning light-of one more day!
But if I should die before I wake, I pray my soul to take.
It goes on. Kurt describes children “aching for home-for something of their very own. Reaching hands with nothing to hold onto/ but hope for a better day.” Despite its private soul-yearning, a piece spun from his heart not for money, but for need, Kurt did perform the song, and then watched it take off with a life of its own, hitting a nerve with audiences he could never have predicted.
The song is performed every day somewhere. Web sites are dedicated to it. Kurt performed it at the recent millennial UN Summit; it was sung at the Columbine funeral for the slain high school students. It was adopted by the Methodist church who purchased 10,000 copies of it to pass to members.
Washington D.C. Temple
Recently, with only a keyboard and a microphone which multiplied his voice, Kurt sang it for ambassadors from many nations at the new auditorium at the Washington D.C. temple visitor’s center. The occasion was the illumination of the Christmas lights at the temple-a celebration of light-at which “The Prayer of the Children” was a highlight. Kurt asked the ambassador from Bosnia to stand; he told the ambassador how much he loved the children of his country, and then he sang the song with its melody that lingers over the soul. The ambassadors in the audience, representing several lands and several religions, were united in that moment in a spirit that was palpable. Who does not respond to the idea of the prayer of pleading children?
Kurt said, “I feel like the proud parent of this song which has done so well, but there is a lesson in it for a lot of us. Anything that glorifies God has this life of its own-especially when it comes from that heart-felt, deep, preexistent part of us.”
From his earliest childhood, Kurt hated conflict. “When anybody got in a fight in school, I’d run around the corner so I didn’t have to be there,” he said. “Life’s just too short to have negative feelings.”
That same sensitivity spilled over into music. Kurt’s mother made a point of music in the home. It was natural. His dad played the trumpet, his mom the French horn, and he started taking piano lessons at age 7, but he didn’t like to practice. Instead, he liked to “play around” on the piano. His mother took him aside and said, “Kurt, why don’t you play me a sunrise?” He wasn’t sure what she meant so she explained that he should play what a sunrise looked like to him.
“I did it,” he said, “and it must have sounded terrible,” but his mother had ignited something that still marks Kurt’s music. One of his defining characteristics is that Kurt creates musical parallels to visual images. His current thirst is to write music about the great and sacred mountains of the world.
Playing the sunrise was all the invitation Kurt needed to begin “Bestorizing music,”-taking a piece or a line of melody and re-creating it into something of his own. At his famous Christmas concerts, he asks audience members to name Christmas carols which he then takes off on in an imaginative flurry of new directions. In high school he played trumpet in a jazz band and was already creating original music for musical groups at school.
Joining the Church
Something else was happening in high school, too. This good Catholic boy was regularly attending seminary in Provo, Utah. It came about so naturally. In 1966, his father had taken a teaching job at BYU as the swimming and diving coach. The teaching position was chosen over one in New Mexico, because the family stopped in Provo and thought the mountains were incredible. They didn’t know much about the Latter-day Saints.
As soon as he started going to school, however, he quickly became aware of the Mormons, mainly because the girls didn’t want to date him. “I didn’t understand this whole idea of the one true church. I understood that there had to be one true God, but going to different churches to me seemed about like choosing a different-colored shirt.” What enticed Kurt to seminary, he jokes, was probably a cute girl, but he was impressed with the plan of salvation. Other than that, everything about the gospel seemed like a lot to know. “Mormons paid 10% of their income and they went to Church two times on Sunday,” he laughed. “It wasn’t a good sale.”
Yet, Kurt’s friends persisted. He was invited to all the Mormon activities and went. His family received lots of cakes and cookies on Monday nights. “I’m sure our family was the discussion of many a PEC meeting,” he said. “We were dry Mormons. Nobody thought of us as non-Mormons. My Mom taught Utah History at the jr. high, and told her students all about the miracle of the crickets and the seagulls. Still, I made it all the way through high school being absorbed in the LDS culture without letting any of it get inside of me. “
Then the summer after he graduated from 12th grade, he toured, playing trumpet, with the Johnny Whittaker show. “Everybody on the show was a Mormon except me,” Kurt said. “They used to call me Bishop Bestor. It was in Modesto that it finally hit me that I wanted to join the Church. It had been coming line upon line, precept upon precept all those years.”
Kurt called his parents to tell them the news, unsure what to expect since his mother was a stanch Catholic. To his surprise, she said when he got back they’d all take the discussion together. They had already had some..
On October 2, 1976, Kurt’s entire family joined the Church, with a stake center full of people gathered for the services, all feeling they had had a hand in bringing the Bestor’s into the gospel. “So many people were there, they had to call in different groups for each baptism,” Kurt said.
A Sense of the Spiritual
Kurt’s music is not necessarily religious, but it springs from a profound sense of God’s goodness. He is aware that music has an awesome power to be a salve for a wounded world, and for him it is worth all the creative sacrifice when he feels the synergy between himself, the audience and God.
“I can sit down and write notes, but for me to really write music, I have to hold hands with something out of this world. Haydn used to get dressed up to compose his music. When people asked him why, he said, ‘Because I’m communing with God today.'” I feel that. I have to have that same spirit you feel in the temple, otherwise it has no power. If you look, for instance, at Prayer of the Children in an analytical way, the words aren’t Shakespeare. It is just a bunch of words and notes, but I never perform it that it doesn’t bring a spiritual response. It is real. I have had too many e-mails from people about it not to know there’s something spiritual about it. I did write the piece, but something more has touched it.. I was in pain when I wrote it, and that little moment in time is recaptured again and again every time I perform it.
“I was listening to Bach the other day,” Kurt said, “and it occurred to me I was listening to something alive. He wrote something with some emotion; he died, but every time somebody hears the music, it is like a resurrection.
“It makes me kind of scared sometimes. When I am up there singing, I could manipulate people’s feelings if I weren’t careful. The particular talent that I’ve been blessed with needs to be used for the building of the kingdom, and that’s why it works. I have to continually remind myself where I got the talent from and how it needs to be used.”
The Creative Life
The creative life is not an easy one. Kurt’s hobby is reading biographies about composers. “I used to get depressed when I read them,” he said. “It seems to me that every composer has a lot of difficulties in their lives. Perhaps it is because you have to be crazy to be a composer.”
If not crazy, at least have the ability to work like crazy. When Kurt travels, he composes in his hotel room and takes room service. Currently on his platter, he is scoring a feature film, doing a project for the Olympics and performing in eight concerts in December. He chose to make this a light year. Last year he did 15. While juggling this work load, Kurt admits frankly that this is not the Middle Ages when a rich patron supported artists. They have to support themselves-and if you have impeccable standards-that means you have to work hard and always have an eye on creating the next project by putting together an idea with a financier and a distributor. That is not an easy job for someone whose music as he says, “appeals to the NPR crowd.”
It is only after years of producing music that has scored with listeners that Kurt says he can write the music he wants and be assured he will make a living with it.
The Importance of Being Humane
The same sensitivity that rushes out of Kurt into music compels him to service as well.
The little boy who ran from fights on the playground grew up to be someone who spends his free time as an activist for humane causes. Two or three times a month he does benefit concerts. He serves on the boards of several charities like Karl Malone’s foundation for kids.
He believes in being an activist in the Mother Theresa sort of way. “I want to reach out to people who are hurting whether they are in or outside of the Church. Too often,” he complains, “we make lasagne for anybody in the ward who is sick, but let a nonmember down the block starve. Before I was an American, I was a child of God. I don’t care if a person is in Cuba of North Viet Nam, I want to reach out to them. There are too many bulldozed trees, hurting children, extinct animals.”
One of Kurt’s favorite charities is arts in education. He says, “One of the ways to get people to start thinking about social causes and think about each other is to temper their spirits with the arts. It is not coincidental that the humanities has human in them. If people are in choirs together, they probably won’t be shooting each other. If they paint in a classroom, they probably won’t paint graffiti. I want to help people see beautiful things. If they can think of things that are praiseworthy and of good report, then they won’t do ugly things like destroy God’s creations.”
Perhaps he understands pain so acutely from the challenges he’s faced as a father. His two beautiful daughters, 12 and 19, were both born with spina bifida. It is rare to have this disability appear twice in a family, but Kurt is philosophical about it. “They are my angels. Their time spent here will be in bodies that don’t totally work. They’ve got everything they need to be happy. I have none of the problems most people have with their children.”
For his good works, Kurt was recently awarded the Rich Gibbons Humanitarian Award at the Pearl Awards.
Can you hear the voice of the children,
Softly pleading for silence in a shattered world?
Kurt wrote that out of the passion of his deepest heart. He tries to live in a way that he can hear those voices, too.