Choir Tour Day 6: Third Time’s a Charm

  • 27 June 2011

Associate conductor Ryan Murphy leads the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square in Chautauqua, New York, on June 25, 2011.

Saturday, June 26, 2011, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, along with the Massey Memorial Organ, thrilled audiences at the Chautauqua Amphitheater with their powerful sounds.

This is the choir’s third time performing at Chautauqua in the past decade.

Below, read a blog post about The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s fifth day on tour, written by choir member and second soprano Holly Abel.

Choir Tour Day 6—Chautauqua, New York

By Holly Abel

On the sixth day of our 2011 tour, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square went “home” to Chautauqua!

After arriving very late on Friday night to our hotel in Buffalo, New York, the choir and orchestra members (along with staff, guests and bus drivers), were up bright and early Saturday morning for a quick breakfast and announcements. We then boarded our 11 buses for an hour-and-a-half ride to the historic Chautauqua Institution. Despite our feeling the effects of six intensive days on the road and lack of sleep, cheerfulness and excitement were evident in our company. Many choir and orchestra members performed at Chautauqua during recent tours in 2003 and 2007. The wonderful memories and enthusiasm they shared was contagious for those of us who were “first timers,” and our day in Chautauqua was highly anticipated.

During morning announcements we were reminded, as always, “to be prepared for change,” an important motto when travelling with 600 or more people! Our first noticeable change was the weather, which had cooled down to a brisk 60 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the average 90 degrees coupled with high humidity, which we had been experiencing for the past five days. This was a very welcome adjustment! The next change was our unique location, which provided the first chance on this tour to give two full performances in one day and the rare opportunity to interact with our public in between those concerts.

Upon arrival in Chautauqua we stepped off the bus and seemed to step back in time to the late 19th century. Quaint Victorian cottages lined streets of manicured gardens. Flower boxes adorned windows, friends chatted on verandas, and the preferred mode of transportation was by foot or bicycle. The tangibly slower pace enveloped us and had an instantly calming effect on our souls, putting smiles on our faces and a spring in our step. Pure Americana had come to life, and we were living in it. We couldn’t help hearing strains of Meredith Willson’s stirring “76 Trombones” from The Music Man run through our minds as we marched down the road!

The picturesque 750-acre (303 ha) Chautauqua Institution had its early beginnings in the wake of the Civil War. Originally designed as an educational summer camp for Sunday School teachers, it grew over the decades into one of the world’s premiere summer arts and education centers. Chautauqua is America’s oldest institution for lifelong learning. It houses the nation’s oldest summer opera company and sponsors the oldest continuous book club, among many other impressive accomplishments. Founded in 1874 by Methodist bishop John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller, Chautauqua runs a 10-week summer season offering over 300 courses and dozens of concerts to choose from. If that is not enough, there is also a 36-hole golf course, tennis courts, and a vibrant sailing center on Lake Chautauqua to enjoy. Patrons come from all over the United States and dozens of countries for this unique experience.

Saturday’s Tabernacle Choir concerts launched the 2011 summer season, which is the 21st season that Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming, has planned. He explains that it is his job “to keep everyone between ages 3 and 100 busy and fulfilled, literally!”

Planning the programming of a Chautauqua Institution season goes “beyond a science and is really an art.” Mr. Merkley said inviting the Tabernacle Choir “has been a no-brainer.” Chautauquans have fallen in love with the choir, and the choir has fallen in love with Chautauqua. “People are moved both emotionally and physically by the experience [of hearing the choir and orchestra]. …The choir offers the public the chance to be able to hear something truly heavenly,” he said.

More than 85 percent of guests at Chautauqua will return, and many have been returning for decades. Josette Rolley of West Lafayette, Indiana, is one of them. She has been coming to Chautauqua each summer for as long as she can remember. Her parents attended before she was born, and eventually purchased one of the original homes within the gates. Josette now brings her children and grandchildren, making them loyal four-generation “Chautauquans,” she cheerfully proclaims, “This is such a fabulous place for multi-generation families! There’s something here for everyone.” Josette has fond memories of attending the past Mormon Tabernacle Choir concerts, including the very first Chautauqua concert given in 1967. She was thrilled to be able to attend today’s concert because, she said, “it’s always so beautiful, and there is such a variety of music!” She also expressed appreciation that “[the choir and orchestra] are such a happy group of people, and everyone is so friendly!”

Peg Bryan, past president of the National Federation of Music Clubs (NFMC), has a special bond with the Chautauqua Institute. The NFMC has been attending the summer season for more than 67 years, and Peg has given many lectures there herself. “[The Chautauqua Institute] is just a magic place!” says Peg, “It is an exceptional place for the arts,” and everyone should attend “if for no other reason than to come for an artistic feast.”

The choir and orchestra performed in a unique covered amphitheater in the center of town. This building is reminiscent of an open-sided version of the Tabernacle on Temple Square, complete with very similar long wooden benches and excellent acoustics. With the full orchestra on stage, all 320 choir members needed to fit into the upper loft in an entirely new configuration from past tour concerts. Thanks to our seating “gurus,” everything went smoothly.

Steve Marshall from Liberty, Pennsylvania, was invited to be a guest in the loft during a brief sound-check rehearsal. A long-time dairy farmer, Steve is president-elect of the Wellsboro Men’s Chorus, whose members were arriving by bus to attend the evening concert [a seven-hour round trip]. “I’m not sure my words can even describe this experience [singing with the choir],” said Steve, “It was just awesome!”

Our first concert was given at 2:00 p.m. to a crowd of approximately 4,000 enthusiastic people, who gave no less than 10 standing ovations and truly made us feel “welcomed home” to Chautauqua. Afterward, we were served a lovely dinner on the lawn of the historic Athenaeum Hotel overlooking the lake, and then had a little time to explore, shop, and most important of all, visit with the delightful and friendly residents.

Our evening performance was given at 7:30 p.m. to a crowd of approximately 5,000, who expressed equal enthusiasm and warmth, giving many ovations and thunderous applause. It seemed we all lingered as long as we could together, none of us wanting to leave this special little haven.

As a surprise, Marty Merkley was invited to be our special guest conductor for the concluding finale at each of the Chautauqua concerts. When stepping up to the podium during the rehearsal, he candidly told the choir he was “scared spitless,” which drew hearty laughter from all the musicians. Mr. Merkley did an excellent job, conducting us with rhythm and plenty of flair. He said of his experience, “It’s pretty intimidating, but very amazing, to stand up in front of all of those people who are singing and smiling at you and making that glorious sound!”

As the choir and orchestra walked back to their buses, residents lined the streets, and we heard sincere expressions such as, “The angels were truly here with us tonight!”, “Thank you so much!”, and, most often, “Please come back soon!”

The PBS special entitled Chautauqua: An American Narrative gives a wonderful glimpse of the institution's history and unique place in American culture. This video highlights the “four pillars” of Chautauqua (arts, education, religion, and recreation) and includes beautiful footage of the area and interviews by notable scholars. It can be watched free in its entirety on pbs.org.