When world-renowned vocalist Sissel, best known for her stunning vocals in Titanic, stepped on the Conference Center stage for the 2019 Pioneer Day concert, her ethereal performance with the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra on Temple Square could be linked back to the efforts of one man: Erlend D. Peterson.
Watch Sissel's 2006 performance of "Vitae Lux" ("Light of Lift") with the Tabernacle Choir below:
As a direct descendant of the first Norwegian Latter-day Saint convert, Svend Larsen, Peterson's Norwegian roots span generations. In fact, Peterson's given name, Erlend, is a Norwegian name inspired by the Nobel Award-winning book Kristin Lavransdatter. Peterson served two missions, one to the eastern United States and a second to Norway while his father served as mission president there. In 1988, Peterson followed in his father's footsteps and began his service as a mission president in Norway.
Erlend Peterson in his office at BYU. Image courtesy of Erlend Peterson.
For Peterson, hearing prayers spoken in Norwegian or folk songs from his ancestral lands was not an uncommon occurrence in his home growing up. There's something about the country, Peterson told the Deseret News, that grabs hold of you and doesn't let go.
These early connections paved the way for Peterson to become an ambassador for Norway and ultimately receive the country's highest recognition given to non-Norwegians—that of becoming a Knight First Class.
But receiving this honor came as a complete surprise to Peterson.
A Surprise Knighting
On November 10, 1997, Erlend Peterson, then the dean of admissions and records at BYU, waited nervously in the university parking lot for His Excellency Tom Vraalsen, Ambassador of Norway, to arrive. Peterson's nerves did not stem from the distinguished nature of his guest. Peterson had hosted many notable Norwegians who presented at BYU. Peterson worried that the lecture, which had been organized on short notice, would not attract a big audience.
Erlend Peterson on the day he was knighted. From left to right: Erlend Peterson; Utah Honorary Consul for Norway, Leif Andersen; BYU President Merrill Bateman; Norwegian Ambassador Tom Vraalsen; Norwegian Consul General Hans Ola Urstad. Image courtesy of Erlend Peterson.
When Peterson and Ambassador Vraalsen walked into the Kennedy Center later that day, Peterson was surprised and delighted to see people packed into the room and lining the hallways. But that was far from Peterson's last or biggest surprise of the day.
"I was surprised to see my wife and children and many of our friends [in attendance]," Peterson recalls. "My thought was that Colleen knew how concerned I was about having a good audience that she decided to come, bring our kids, and invite some of our friends. I was also surprised to see television cameras from three different stations. I was puzzled but thought of all the times for them to come, I was happy it was for the Norwegian ambassador."
More unexpected guests poured into the room, including the San Francisco Norwegian General Consul and Brigham Young University's president, the academic vice president, and the associate academic vice president.
After introducing Ambassador Vraalsen, Peterson received the greatest shock of all. "His Excellency started talking about me and complimenting me for the work I had done and was doing for Norway," Peterson remembers. Initially, Peterson was touched by the attention, especially since his bosses were in attendance. But as Ambassador Vraalsen continued, Peterson grew uncomfortable. "I thought, 'Enough is enough,'" Peterson says. "At that point, the Honorary Consul, who was a good friend, said, 'You know the ambassador is here for you.' I missed his point and simply replied, 'Yes, I know. I invited him.'" But the meaning of those words soon became clear when Ambassador Vraalsen told the bursting audience in attendance, "Not only do I appreciate all that Erlend is doing but so do those above me, including His Majesty the King."
It was then Ambassador Vraalsen invited Peterson on the stand and presented him with the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, Knight First Class. "I could not have been more surprised about being knighted," Peterson says. "I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what was happening." Speechless, and concerned about how much time this recognition had taken from Ambassador Vraalsen's lecture time, Peterson started back to his seat.
"Don't you want to say something?" Peterson remembers Ambassador Vraalsen asking. Peterson continues, "I said, 'Yes, but I don’t want to take more time away from your lecture.' He told me to take all the time I wanted. Ambassador Vraalsen got what he wanted. He totally surprised me! When I told this story to His Majesty King Harald, he got quite a kick out of it."
After the lecture, Peterson discovered another small surprise: It turns out the celebration he had planned for Ambassador Vraalsen after the lecture turned out to be his own celebration luncheon!
A Life Worth Celebrating
Throughout his career at Brigham Young University, Peterson worked to bring international ambassadors as well as Norwegian diplomats, leaders, scholars, artists, and musicians like Sissel to present at BYU. While hosting many of these renowned guests, Peterson would also arrange for them to meet with Church leaders and Utah politicians.
Erlend and Colleen Peterson with Crown Prince Haakon Magnus and Crown Princess Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. Image courtesy of Erlend Peterson.
"My most happy accomplishment was introducing the Tabernacle Choir to Sissel and to see what they have done with her since then," Peterson says. He continues, "There is a strong relationship between my faith and my work. While I am showcasing Norway to all I can, I am also showcasing BYU, the Church, and the state to Norwegian VIPs. One of our early guests was Jens Stoltenberg. He went on to become prime minister of Norway for three elections, and he is now the general secretary of NATO."
While building these connections, Peterson couldn't help but draw the notice of Norwegian dignitaries, including the King of Norway himself.
Erlend and Colleen Peterson with His Majesty King Harald (center) at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. Image courtesy of Erlend Peterson.
Peterson was able to meet with King Harald after receiving his knighthood on May 31, 1999. After following all the proper protocol, Peterson helped break the tension of that meeting by telling the humorous story of his surprise knighting. "It loosened our conversation, and it became very comfortable," Peterson recalls. After all, it's not every day you get to make a king laugh.