Francisco de Araujo: Dialogue with an Adventist conductor, producer, and artistic director

The business card barely hints at what Dr. Araujo is about: Associate Director for Advancement and Director of Pro Arts International, at Atlantic Union College, in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. Of him, a Washington Times editor wrote, “He’s worth watching, that is if you don’t mind watching a genius.” That comment followed a 1981 Araujo performance of a Passion Play on the Mount of Olives. Amazingly for that land of religious minefields, it was a grand success, with front-page coverage in the New York Times and the release of a Doubleday religious art book based on the presentation.

Araujo has always worked with music on a world stage. Music is his vehicle for evangelization. He established the Choral Arts Society of Japan and then toured the United States with this critically acclaimed group of young people. Alan Gershwin, son of George Gershwin, heard them perform at the New York Town Hall and arranged for them to give a concert at the United Nations.

After serving as a missionary in Japan for seven years, Araujo returned to the U.S. and established the Washington National Chorus, an Adventist choral group that he wanted to function like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was a big dream, and in the late 1960s it made a considerable impact for the church.

Araujo took his music into the maelstrom of international events. He was invited by President Anwar Sadat to guest conduct Egypt’s National Orchestra and Chorus in a gala concert to celebrate the second anniversary of the peace initiative with Israel. In 1994, with his Camerata Nuove Singers and Orchestra, he led out in a televised performance of the Messiah from the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem. Two days later, they were “across” in Jordan giving a concert to open the king’s birthday celebrations.

In 1996, Araujo visited Jordan again and led a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to celebrate the newly signed peace treaty with Israel. While he was there, Chairman Arafat asked him to perform a “Peace for Palestine” concert at Bethlehem University.

Testimonials are stock-in-trade for performers, but some comments made by Yoni Fighel, then military governor of the West Bank after the 1994 Messiah tour go to the heart of what Araujo does with music: “You have no idea what you have accomplished here tonight. For nearly 50 years our politicians have tried in vain to bring these people together. In one single night you have brought together, in this holy place, Jews, Christians, Moslems, Palestinians, all praising one God as they stood during the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ The influence of this night will long be felt here.”

Dr. Araujo, how did you get into music evangelism?

I was a farm boy. My father and mother were immigrants to the U.S. from the Portuguese Azores. There were no grandiose designs for my life. I was one of seven children, and it was tough for my parents just to put food on the table. Dad wanted the best for us, but I was the only child who went to college. All the others wanted to go out to work. I had this inborn passion for music. Oh, I didn’t really know what music was. I had never heard a symphony or anything like that. Still, I knew that I wanted to be involved in music.

After high school, I chose Atlantic Union College (AUC). And that was where I met Dr. Virginia Jean Ritten-house, who became first a mentor and then a good friend as we cooperated on many projects over 50 years. She gave me a vision for mission service.

My dad sold his house to put me through AUC and then lived the rest of his life in an apartment. His dream was not for me to be a musician—but to be a pastor. And then mom used to say, “We always wanted a missionary son.” Well, I did go to Japan as a missionary.

So what are some of the significant memories of your early music career?

While I never had any grand designs for my life, I will always remember what H.M.S. Richards, Sr., told me when I brought the Japanese choir on tour to the U.S. He said “God has put His hand on you, Brother, be careful.” It kind of shook me, kind of scared me, but I have always believed in Ellen White’s counsel that the highest rung of the ladder is what God expects of us. I have never been attracted to fame outside of the church, although I have received many accolades. Unwittingly or unexpectedly it has been one of the by-products of making music. One of my greatest joys has been the opportunity of taking a choir of young people to the SkyDome to sing to 50,000 people at a General Conference Session. The music organizers told me we couldn’t sing there. We were too late. No space left, they said. I remember saying to the organizers, “We are going to sing for the General Conference. It may be by the toilets or on the stage. But we are coming, and we are going to sing.” I have always told my choir members that we should never limit God. How can you limit Him? When He puts a finger on you and says, “I want you to do work for Me,” how are we are going to limit this? You can’t limit it!

During my seven years in Japan, I watched young people come out of Buddhism into Christianity. I watched them become members of the church, workers in the church. Today as I look back, the head of our work in Japan was a choir member, the head of our hospital was a choir member, and the head of the television station was a choir member.

The work in Japan today is being run by those I had an influence on, and that’s very satisfying.

Music has been your life. But did it come easily at first?

When I went to Atlantic Union College I was at the bottom of the ladder. Every time I went for piano lessons with Dr. Rittenhouse I came to my room and cried. I said “It’s over, I can’t do this, this is not for me!” This struggle went on week after week. Finally I went up on the roof of the boys’ dorm and said, “Lord, we are having it out, You and me. I will not leave here until You bless me. Until You tell me that I am doing what You want me to do.” That struggle went on all night. By dawn I felt I had the answer—that I should just stay the course.

I have never really regretted it. I have not become rich, but I have been rich in blessings that God has given me. I don’t know what it is about young people singing together, but it has touched my heart and given me fulfillment.

Which piece of music has touched you most?

There are so many wonderful pieces that I have performed, so many, many times. But I love the Hallelujah Chorus the most. The first time you hear it you think that you are going to the throne of God. With that said, I must add that it is very hard to choose a piece of music and say this is it. But the one piece that stands out in my conducting is the last chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. It’s the chorus where Jesus lies in the tomb and two choirs accompanying two orchestras sing “Rest in Peace”—the ingredients of that piece are beyond human experience.

Mendelssohn said it well: “This music did not come from man, it came from God.” I have taken the St. Matthew’s Passion and made it into a morality play. In the very last scene, the disciples take the body of Jesus and lay it on a marble slab. As they say good-bye to Jesus, the chorus sings in deepest grief. I think probably that is one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.

Does it make any difference whether a believer or a non-believer sings the Messiah? Is it enough to have a well-trained professional? What role do you see for personal faith in communicating through music?

The most important thing for a singer is to provide a spiritual touch—and that must come from the singer’s own experience. If spirituality is displayed in the life, it is going to project through the music.

Do you have any special advice for young people today?

For a growing young person, nothing can replace the value of Christian education. I believe our young people should be in Adventist colleges. That’s where they should get their grounding. Nothing can replace the value, the spiritual and the social education our colleges offer. But where this is not possible, they must find a fellowship situation that can nurture their faith and challenge their Christian commitment.

The Lord has a work for every young person. He has a definite plan for each of us, and we have to discover this, and work toward making it a reality. We can have as big a vision as we want, but if that vision has no room for God and His church, to that extent it is vain.

Interview by Lincoln Steed. Lincoln Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine and associate director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. Dr. Francisco de Araujo may be contacted by e-mail: