Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra Thrill Audiences in Maryland and New York

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 7 July 2015

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs with Alex Boyé, a former choir member and a solo recording artist.

Article Highlights

  • The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, led by Alex Boyé, sang part of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah on the airplane. The video has more than 113,000 views.
  • The choir has extra social media coverage for this tour in order to tell its own story.
  • The first two concerts of the tour sold out in the 1,600-seat Music Center at Strathmore, in Bethesda, Maryland.

“This will be the most social-media researched, posted-about Tabernacle Choir tour in history.” —Kim Farah, publicist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square have completed the first portion of their Atlantic Coast Tour, performing concerts in Bethesda, Maryland, and in Bethel and Saratoga Springs, New York.

Before the two-week journey ends, the choir and orchestra will have presented two concerts at New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall and performed the national anthem at Yankee Stadium for a New York Yankees baseball game, concluding the tour at the Wang Theater in Boston, Massachusetts.

The tour entourage departed Salt Lake City on June 24 in three jet airliners leaving at separate times.

More than 320 choir members are on the tour, accompanied by 68 orchestra members. Counting staff and guests, there are 582 people on the tour.

Not long after the first plane departed, Alex Boyé, a soloist and former choir member who is performing two selections in the concerts, announced over the plane’s intercom system the above statistics. He then led those on board in singing a few bars of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.

The scene was recorded by Eric Malizia, digital media producer of the choir organization’s digital support team. Brother Malizia then edited the clip into a brief video, with the choir members’ singing segueing into a recording of the full choir singing Messiah, posted it to YouTube, and publicized it on the choir organization’s social media sites.

As of June 30, the video, which has been reposted and retweeted, had received more than 113,000 views.

It’s all part of a strategy that is new to this concert tour. It is aimed at using the power of social media to boost the choir’s influence and impact well beyond anything that happened with any previous choir tour.

On a flight from Salt Lake City to Baltimore, Maryland, Eric Malizia, digital media producer, shoots video of passengers singing while soloist Alex Boyé and choir member Don Love lead them. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

On a flight from Salt Lake City to Baltimore, Maryland, Eric Malizia, digital media producer, shoots video of passengers singing while soloist Alex Boyé and choir member Don Love lead them. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

On a flight from Salt Lake City to Baltimore, Maryland, Eric Malizia, digital media producer, prepares to shoot video of passengers with soloist Alex Boyé leading them. Photo by Debra Gehris.

Scott Barrick, general manager of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir organization, speaks to the group upon their arrival in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 24. Photo by Debra Gehris.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square perform in the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 25, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Alex Boyé performs “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” as Ryan Murphy directs the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square during a concert in the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 25, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

The audience gives a standing ovation at the matinee performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square in the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 25, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

“This will be the most social-media researched, posted-about Tabernacle Choir tour in history,” said Kim Farah, publicist for the choir and orchestra.

“One thing that’s really significant is that we have a team of three people here to work on social media and website promotion that we haven’t had before,” said Heidi Swinton, who works in a voluntary role as content manager for the choir organization’s digital support team.

Even before the tour began, they had been interviewing people, emailing them for information, and putting together content in advance.

Included are such items as a tour diary to be written by a different choir member each day and surveys such as “seven fun things to do on a bus” while traveling to a choir venue.

Sister Swinton, who authored a book about the choir published in 2004 called America’s Choir, said the social media initiative is the organization’s effort to tell its own story.

“We are not sitting back and waiting for other media to define what we’ve done on tour, but we’re being very proactive.”

The effort is nearly as well coordinated and orchestrated as one of musical director Mack Wilberg’s own musical arrangements.

“We’ve appointed from each section of the choir—sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses—two people who act as social media captains,” Brother Malizia explained. “As Scott Barrick said, they are like the people in the crowd at a football game who start ‘the wave’ and get it to go around the stadium.”

The captains teach and encourage other choir members to retweet posts, share Facebook posts, and generally follow the do’s and don’ts of optimizing social media use.

Brother Barrick said the initiative had its genesis back in 2012.

“We’re at 30 million views since that initial rollout, and we add another million views about every 23 days.”

About two years ago, the choir organization assumed greater control over and reenergized its Facebook page and Twitter account and added a presence on Pinterest and Instagram.

“We put together what we call a digital support team and a content team to manage all the pieces of the strategy,” Brother Barrick said.

The hope, Brother Barrick said, is that through social media, many people can experience the tour vicariously, “then come and sample our content, sign up for newsletters, watch the videos, and tune in to the Music and the Spoken Word broadcast.”

Sister Farah, the publicist, said, “We see the choir moving into the future in a very bold, exciting way, and I just can’t wait to see what happens in the next 5 to 10 years after all that’s been accomplished. This is a very forward-thinking choir leadership. They have great vision, and I think it’s so exciting to see the history of the choir from the very beginning of our faith over 100 years and still moving forward in a contemporary way.”

Here is a rundown of highlights from the choir tour as of June 29.

Exterior of the Music Center at Strathmore, where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square performed two concerts in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 25, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Choir members perform during the evening concert at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 25, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Dave and Judy Breese brought their special needs son, Zack, to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Zack learned of the choir through Internet searching and became an ardent fan. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Heidi Swinton, left, content manager for the digital support team of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, interviews Wade Lawrence, director of the museum at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, where the choir and Orchestra at Temple Square performed June 27, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square perform in the pavilion of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in New York June 27, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Dave and Judy Breese brought their special needs son, Zack, to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Zack learned of the choir through Internet searching and became an ardent fan. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Musical director Mack Wilberg acknowledges performers during an ovation from the audience attending the concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts June 27, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

The audience gives a standing ovation for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square concert at Bethel Woods, New York, June 27, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Elder Larry Y. Wilson of the Seventy leads the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square during their encore performance at the close of the concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

In response to an invitation from Lloyd Newell, military veterans in the audience stand and are recognized just prior to the performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square June 27, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, members of the Orchestra at Temple Square, Lloyd Newell (left), Ryan Murphy, Mack Wilberg, and Elder Larry Y. Wilson sing “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” at the close of the concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in New York June 27, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Musical director Mack Wilberg leads the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square during the concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in New York June 27, 2015. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Bethesda, Maryland

In the shadow of the nation’s capital, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square performed the first two concerts of their two-week Atlantic Coast Tour June 25 in the sold-out, 1,600-seat Music Center at Strathmore.

In both the matinee and the evening concerts, the audience demanded two encores. For the second encore in each concert, a surprise guest conductor led the choir and orchestra. At the matinee, it was Rabbi Gerald Serotta, director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. In the evening concert the guest conductor was Jeh Johnson, United States Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.

With music director Mack Wilberg and associate music director Ryan Murphy sharing conducting duties, the choir and orchestra performed selections “from the treasury of sacred song.”

After intermission, the choir and orchestra performed “music of rejoicing from around the world.”

Soloist Alex Boyé brought exuberant applause with his performance of two African American spirituals: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” and “I’m Runnin’ On.” Two of the choir’s signature hymns—“Come, Come, Ye Saints” and the Grammy Award–winning “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—completed the programmed concert lineup, followed by “Climb Every Mountain” and “This Land Is Your Land” for the two encores.

Demand for admission to the evening concert demonstrated the need for a matinee, but having one presented something of a problem, said Brother Barrick. Strathmore, a multidisciplinary arts center, has no daytime parking facility.

That meant the afternoon performance needed to draw from people who would not be driving cars downtown. To boost attendance, the Tabernacle Choir organization offered tickets to missionaries serving in the Washington D.C. North Mission.

Thus, choir member Boyd Fisher of West Bountiful, Utah, was able to make connections with his missionary son, Elder Jedediah Fisher.

Along with Elder Fisher’s companion, Elder Joshua Ord of Orange, California, the father and son were among concertgoers attracted by a new feature being offered during this tour to attendees, giving them a chance to “sing with the choir.”

The feature uses a video camera to superimpose the video image of individuals or small groups onto a background of Tabernacle Choir members singing the familiar hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Ed Payne, executive producer of Music and the Spoken Word, explained, “This gives people an opportunity to sing with the choir one verse, we record it, and we email them a link to the video recording on a private YouTube channel. Then they can share it with their friends and family as though they had sung with the choir.”

The idea came, he said, from repeated expressions of people over the years that they had always wanted to sing with the choir. Now they have that chance.

Bethel, New York

About a mile from where the Woodstock Music Festival was staged in 1969, the choir and orchestra performed at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts June 27. And just as it happened at the iconic ’60s festival, rain dampened but did not wash out the choir and orchestra concert.

A daylong drizzle at the venue, deep in the Catskills about 90 miles from New York City, developed into a downpour by the time the concert began about 7:30 p.m. About a third of the 2,500 or so ticket holders did not attend, ostensibly due to the weather.

On a campus of about 2,000 acres, Bethel Woods encompasses the 37-acre farm field on which an estimated 500,000 young people converged August 15–18, 1969, to hear some of the most popular rock music artists of the day.

For this outdoor venue the choir and orchestra performed some of the same selections as at the first two concerts of this Atlantic Coast Tour in Bethesda, Maryland, but music director Mack Wilberg tailored this lineup for a more casual setting.

The concert also featured a longer set of show tunes including “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Typically, a prominent figure at a concert venue is chosen to be a guest conductor to lead the choir and orchestra through its final encore. Elder Larry Y. Wilson of the Seventy, who is a presiding General Authority on the choir’s tour and a pianist and organist with a musician’s heart, did not hesitate to accept the honor when the position was offered to him.

Elder Wilson told the Church News, “It’s really an overpowering experience to be up there, because you realize that the level of musicianship represented by the orchestra and chorus is so far beyond where I am as a musician. And to be invited to be the guest conductor with a group like that was really an overpowering experience. … It was really the thrill of a lifetime.”

Choir leaders and staff had a heartwarming experience in connection with this concert involving a young fan.

Zack Breese, 25, who has developmental issues requiring special education, lives with his parents, Dave and Judy, in Walton, about an 80-minute drive from Bethel.

After they adopted Zack, who was born in South Korea, they found that he, at age 2, was able to navigate the Internet. There, he found the sacred music genre, which, in turn, led him to the music of the choir and orchestra.

Both special education teachers, the couple said the music of the choir has added a dimension to their lives and their son’s life, and they have found in it a way to connect more deeply with him.

“The music that comes from the choir touches him in ways that nothing else does,” Mrs. Breese said. “So it gives us access to Zack that we would not ordinarily have. It enriches our relationship with Zack by just being able to reach him more deeply through something that touches him so deeply.”

Arrangements were made for the Breeses to attend the concert sound check in addition to the concert and to record an interview for placement on the choir’s website.

Zack told Tabernacle Choir general manager Scott Barrick that he is not just a fan; he is the fan.

Prior to the concert, choir officers toured the museum at Bethel Woods.

Museum director Wade Lawrence said of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square appearance, “Woodstock was about expression, and what’s more expressive than a several-hundred-person chorus singing what they feel inside? That’s what music is about; that’s what creativity is about. I couldn’t be happier.”

He said he overheard someone say the performance would have even greater force than the music at Woodstock. “In other words, I have a feeling it’s going to be one gigantic wall of sound; it’ll be heavenly music and it will blow us away.”

Apparently, powerful, heavenly music is what the audience heard and felt.

In an email message to Lauren Smith, a violinist with the orchestra, Judy Breese wrote:

“Yesterday and last evening were irreplaceable experiences for the three of us. I watched in tears, most of the time, throughout your performance; many others around me did the same. We may have been small in number, but I truly hope the choir felt the great love and warmth from those of us who were there. As we were leaving, we kept hearing audience members express their appreciation for the announcer’s good humor and the orchestra members’ forbearance under such adverse conditions. Cold, damp instruments, freezing fingers, and wet, flying sheet music were surely not part of their plan, but they dealt with all of it so gracefully. I even saw a bassist smiling—oh my!”

Saratoga Springs

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square helped Saratoga Springs, known for its natural spring waters and thoroughbred horse racing, observe its centennial with a June 29 concert in the covered amphitheater at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

The concert, presented before a sold-out audience of some 5,600, including those in reserved seating in the amphitheater and general admission seating on the lawn above, was an official centennial celebration event for the city.

Mayor Joanne D. Yepsen of Saratoga Springs and U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko of New York were on hand for the event.

The occasion was especially meaningful for Rep. Tonko, whose father died the day before.

“It felt very uplifting,” he said after the concert. “The heavenly voices of the choir just resonated with tremendous grace and beauty.”

He said that with his grieving, he had second thoughts about going to the concert, but decided to attend in search of a spiritual connection.

“I found it,” he said. “And it was so powerful. So powerful.”

Mayor Yepsen said her opportunity to conduct the choir and orchestra in an encore song was humbling and overwhelming. “It was probably the closest time I ever felt like I got to heaven,” she said.

Two teenagers from Burnt Hills-Balston Lake Central Schools in New York sat in with the choir during the sound check earlier in the day. “I honestly can’t believe we have this experience,” said Ashley Fugal, the graduating senior, who is a member of the Church. “I’ve grown up listening to them, so to be able to actually sing with them is like just kind of breathtaking.”

Allison Taft, the other student, said, “It’s amazing. I feel so grateful to be given this opportunity. I never thought I’d be doing something like this.”