Choir Tour Day 5 Wishing the Wanamaker Organ Happy Birthday

  • 26 June 2011

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, more than 160 years old itself, performed with the accompaniment of Philadelphia’s Wanamaker Organ on Friday in honor of the organ’s 100th year.

Article Highlights

  • Choir Tour Day 5
  • Singing with the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
  • Visiting Church history sites in Palmyra, New York, USA

One hundred years and two days after the Wanamaker Organ, the world’s largest pipe organ, was first heard, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir celebrated the organ’s birthday with a closed concert on Friday, June 25, 2011, the choir’s fifth day of touring.

Four of the five songs performed were accompanied by the centenarian instrument, including director Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of “Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah,” which especially featured the organ.

Principal choir organist Richard Elliott performed a solo on the organ. While attending school in Philadelphia, he served as assistant organist for the famed instrument.

The rest of the day was spent traveling to Buffalo, New York, USA, with a brief stop in Palmyra, New York, where choir and orchestra members were able to visit the Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah.

Tomorrow the choir will rest from performing and prepare for Monday’s concerts at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, Canada.

Below, read a blog post about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s fifth day on tour, written by choir member and first alto Bonita Cross.

Shuffling Off to Buffalo: Why I Love Traveling with This Group

By Bonita Cross, First Alto

While the planning that goes into a tour is finely tuned to the last detail, one thing we must all keep in mind is that there is nothing so constant as change! The plan was to have the last bus pull out of Philadelphia by 9:15 a.m. What with one city ordinance or another dictating this morning’s set of changes, the final bus pulled out at 10:30. Never a group to let a performance opportunity pass by, choir members sang choruses of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” in response to requests for a song from passers-by while we waited en masse alongside a busy Philadelphia street. An impromptu barbershop quartet was heard serenading a group in a hotel hallway. “Happy Birthday” greetings were sung in person and over the occasional cell phone. Some members pulled weeds in a convenient hotel flowerbed, others read or visited, professors turned in grades over the Internet. Still others took advantage of one of the group's favorite pastimes: shopping for the perfect souvenir in the hotel gift shop.

Day 5 Photo Gallery

Once we were finally under way, it seemed that rest was the first order of business. The buses are comfortable and supplied with WiFi. So while some slept, others caught up with e-mail and other vital social networking. Speaking of buses; the line hired for an unprecedented fourth time to transport all 581 travelers is based out of Owosso, Michigan. Each bus sports the name of an honored, real-life Native American chief, such as Chief Saguina, Chief Naiwash and Chief Tecumseh. Three of the drivers have been with us for three tours.

At the wheel of bus 11 is Becky Smith, who has driven for each of the four tours.

“I consider this an honor and a privilege; our company considers it that way too,” she said. “This is considered the highest calling for a trip for any driver. I’ve been on the ’03, ’07, ’09, and now the ’11. I plan on being here for ’13.”

She continued, “For me this is a replenishing. It fills me up instead of taking away. I listen to the choir and get this spiritual experience from being here. When I go home, I tell other drivers they have to sign up for the Mormon trip. They fill you up with good things; you get good music, good food, and you will find 600 new friends when you're done.”

Lunch was a wonderful event. The choir and orchestra were treated to a picnic in the beautiful setting of Cheanago Valley State Park near Binghampton, New York. Catered by a wonderful local caterer, our lunch included salad and rolls, grilled beef and chicken, potatoes, sweet corn on the cob, watermelon, lemonade, and homemade brownies.

Mike and Sue Gance, the owners, had never dreamed of feeding such a group as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and called the experience “a blessing.” As we prepared to pull out, the choir offered up a verse of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” Server Zeb Ostrom exclaimed, “It was wonderful. I sang along because it’s a song I’ve sung since I was a little kid.”

I spoke with the choir’s administrative manager, Barry Anderson, about planning for catered meals; one of the multitude of details he must organize for tour. To find a reputable candidate, he said, “I go online, call and visit with them, and try to get a feel for who they are. We consider the kinds of groups they’ve catered for---especially the size of the group. Then I think about it and contemplate.”

Barry also takes the time to call the Better Business Bureau or the local Chamber of Commerce; he checks references as well. Six weeks before the beginning of tour, Barry met with the Gances and knew they ran a quality business. “Mike is just a dynamite guy,” Barry said. “His wife is great too.” When he realized the departure time from Philadelphia was much later then planned, Barry called Mike. “I told him we were going to be late, and I apologized for messing up the schedule,” he said. “Mike replied, ‘No problems. Let me know your estimated time of arrival. God has a plan.”

Back on the buses after an hour-long break, we began by having a short-story-telling contest. Choir tenor Greg Smith and his wife, Elizabeth, were official timers. Historians Marene Foulger and Tam Wood acted as impartial judges. A dozen or so passengers took the time to tell, in 60 seconds or less, how they met their sweetheart, shared a humorous story, recited poetry, or performed (one gentlemen offered up his imitation of Bullwinkle the Moose). The winner of this gentle competition was alto Joy Brower, who told the story of her sweet husband “kidnapping” her for their anniversary and surprising her with a trip to San Francisco to see Phantom of the Opera.

The occasional activity on a lengthy bus trip allows us to visit and come to know one another better. New friendships develop; opportunities to meet spouses arise. Relationships are strengthened, which lends itself to a deeper unity within the ensemble.

On we went to Palmyra, New York.

One thing I’ve learned over my 15 years in this choir is that no matter how much you give, there’s always a blessing waiting for you in return. One of those great blessings took place at about 6:00 p.m. Friday evening. When planning this tour, Barry Anderson told us he couldn't imagine traveling so close to Palmyra without stopping to take in the Sacred Grove. And so we did.

The 11 buses arrived in three separate shifts so as not to inundate this revered location. Each group took the opportunity to stroll through the grove. It had rained off and on throughout the day, and the air was clean and damp. The gravel path crunched under our feet as we made our way along. Conversations were whispered, and not a few tears were shed. Time was spent in both the Smith home and log cabin. We gathered in front of the frame home and sang to those on hand two great hymns of the Restoration: “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” and “An Angel from on High.” Members of the audience, missionaries, and young children in particular were invited to stand with us and sing along.

What a beautiful way to be reminded of why we are here. Living in Salt Lake City, Utah I can’t say when I will return to Palmyra. What matters is the fact that the sacred and remarkable events that took place there in 1820, (Joseph Smith’s First Vision) as well as on Friday, June 24, 2011, are in my heart. And while I live, I’ll sing.

As I said before, I love traveling with this group!