Mormon Tabernacle Choir Finishes Atlantic Coast Tour
Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer
“This tour is full of magical moments, because everywhere we’ve been is a bucket-list for [musical director] Mack Wilberg and in a beautiful facility made for wonderful choral music.” —Ron Jarrett, president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
In this “cradle of liberty,” the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square concluded their two-week, three-state tour July 6 with a performance in Boston’s ornate, 90-year-old Wang Theater.
The performance capped a week of events steeped in Americana, including two performances at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall, a pregame singing of the national anthem at Yankee Stadium, and a surprise Fourth of July appearance at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
The first week of the tour, with stops in Bethesda, Maryland; and Bethel, New York, was covered in a previous news story.
“This tour is full of magical moments, because everywhere we’ve been is a bucket-list for [musical director] Mack Wilberg and in a beautiful facility made for wonderful choral music,” reflected the choir’s president, Ron Jarrett.
Elder Ronald A. Rasband, senior President in the Presidency of the Seventy, was the priesthood leader assigned to accompany the musical groups during this last half of the tour. Traveling with his wife, Sister Melanie Rasband, he said it has been for him a dream come true, as he loves New York City and the performance locales are all places with which he has been associated in the past.
He said the concerts by the choir and orchestra are one of the ways in which the Church can touch lives.
“There have been stories after stories about how the concerts themselves have touched the lives of individuals. I noticed tonight in the hall there are missionaries here with investigators who have brought them to the concert.”
Appropriate to an Independence Day weekend, the choir and orchestra added three patriotic selections to the concert set for this July 6 performance at this venerable, cathedral-like locale in Boston’s historic Theater District.
The John Williams composition “America, the Dream Goes On,” “God Bless America,” and “Cohan’s Big Three,” a medley of patriotic Broadway show tunes written by George M. Cohan, were all added at the request of residents in the Boston area, Brother Wilberg said. These supplemented a program of masterworks, international folk songs, and signature tunes that have been in each of the concerts.
“I’m usually not a quiet person, but the concert left me speechless and crying because the power, beauty, perfection, the spirit, the unity are beyond words,” said Polly Rowe, who identified herself as a classic violinist and teacher. Not a member of the Church, she said she came with a Mormon family from Connecticut. She said she learned of the Church and choir while on a vacation trip to Salt Lake City, where she visited Temple Square.
Jane Clayson Johnson, a former network TV journalist and a prominent Church member now living in the area, was the guest conductor of the choir’s second encore song, “This Land Is Your Land.” She was also the main host of the VIP reception beforehand.
Attending that reception were local residents Peter Brown and his wife, Rita E. Freed, who shared a story of the kindness they encountered while visiting Temple Square about a year ago.
They had desired to attend one the choir’s regular Thursday night rehearsals but found the Tabernacle was closed for a recording session.
Imploring good-naturedly, they were admitted into the building by the choir’s general manager, Scott Barrick, and heard the session. Brother Barrick was familiar with Boston, having attended Harvard Business School, and they met the choir’s associate music director, Ryan Murphy, who also has Boston ties.
For Brother Murphy, the Boston concert was an occasion to honor three of the music teachers he had while attending Newtown Schools in Connecticut.
During a sound check, he introduced the choir and orchestra to Susie Ziemann, Lois Fiftal, and Tony Inzero, who taught him in elementary, middle school, and high school respectively.
“These people are my musical heroes,” he said. “These were the right people for me at the right time in my life, and I’m not sure I’d be standing here today if it wasn’t for them.”
Tchaikovsky played there when it opened in 1891, and in its 125 seasons, Carnegie Hall has hosted many legends of the performing arts: Vladimir Horowitz, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Julie Andrews, Arturo Toscanini, Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, and Tony Bennett, to name a few.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is part of that stellar assortment, having played Carnegie Hall three times now, the latest occasion being Wednesday, July 1, and Thursday, July 2, with the Orchestra at Temple Square.
“We’ve been to New York City six different times; three of those times were at Carnegie Hall,” said the choir’s announcer, Lloyd Newell, who mentioned that the choir’s first appearance in New York City was in 1911.
Brother Newell said that 1911 appearance was in connection with the American Land and Irrigation Exposition. “They came to New York City. They were here for 10 days and performed three concerts daily at Madison Square Garden. … The choir did 50 concerts and traveled more than 5,000 miles on that tour.
“I tell you that for your interest and also for the choir and orchestra to know that they had it much busier in 1911.”
In 1958, the choir performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy and also performed on Ed Sullivan’s nationwide television variety show broadcast from New York City, Brother Newell said.
“In 1964, they were here at Carnegie Hall, and the last time at Carnegie Hall was in 1976, almost 40 years ago, so I think it’s about time we came back to Carnegie Hall.”
The last time the choir was in New York City was in 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.
For the Wednesday night performance, the guest conductor was the senior United States senator from New York, Chuck Schumer, who directed the performers in “This Land Is Your Land.”
On Thursday night, the guest conductor was Santino Fontana, a Broadway singer, actor, director, and composer who within the past year has been the guest soloist for three concerts in Salt Lake City with the choir and orchestra: Pioneer Day and Christmas in 2014 and a choral director’s convention in February of this year.
The concert was presented on the 2,800-seat Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, the main stage at Carnegie Hall.
“When people say, ‘I’ve played Carnegie Hall,’ that’s where they’ve played,” said Paul C. Bongiorno, president of Starvox Booking, the promoter and booking agent for the Tabernacle Choir tours for the past 15 years.
To start off an Independence Day weekend, there could scarcely be a better mix of Americana: baseball, patriotic show tunes, and “America’s choir,” the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The 320 singers appeared Friday, July 3, at Yankee Stadium. There, in front of 18,000 fans, they opened the game between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays by performing “Cohan’s Big Three,” a medley of show tunes featuring “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” They topped it off with a rendition of the U.S. national anthem, which is traditionally sung at the beginning of major league ballgames.
They presented a resplendent appearance, with women dressed in royal blue dresses and men in navy blue blazers and gray slacks, contrasting with the velvety green of the turf on which they stood. Under the leadership of Mack Wilberg, the choir sang a cappella, their performance bringing exuberant cheers from the spectators.
The choir members then donned casual clothes and, with members of the Orchestra at Temple Square and others in the tour entourage, joined the crowd and enjoyed the spectacle, including a nail-biter finish in which the Yankees came from behind to drive the game into three extra innings. Ultimately, New York prevailed with a score of 7 to 5.
The backstory of the choir’s appearance at the game involves Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004.
About six months ago, the choir’s administrative manager, Barry Anderson, approached Ronald C. Gunnell, assistant to the president for special projects.
“He’s a great baseball fan,” Brother Gunnell said of Brother Anderson. “He said to me, ‘Ron, what do you think the chances are of us getting into Yankee Stadium? Do you know anybody who could help us?’”
Brother Gunnell thought of Mr. Brokaw, a friend of the choir stemming from his past appearances as guest narrator with the choir and orchestra, including the Christmas concert in Salt Lake City in 2014.
He contacted Mr. Brokaw by cell phone and explained that the choir would be in New York on the weekend of the July 4 holiday. “I said, ‘I just can’t think of anything more exciting than having the choir sing the national anthem at a Yankee game.’ I said, ‘Do you know anybody at Yankee Stadium who would help us do that?’”
A week or two later he put Brother Gunnell in touch with Deborah A. Tymon, Yankees senior vice president over marketing.
She and Brother Anderson worked out all the logistical details of having such a large group perform at the game.
Brother Gunnell said this is the first time he knows of that the choir has sung at a professional baseball game, although it has performed at a game of the Utah Jazz NBA basketball team in Salt Lake City.
For many months, it had been a mysterious and deeply held secret, subject to considerable speculation: What would the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square be doing on the July 4 holiday that fell during the groups’ two-week Atlantic Coast tour?
Members were told only that they would perform at a “private event” outside New York City, where they were then staying, and that a “confidential itinerary” would be distributed to them once they had boarded the buses for wherever it was they were going.
On the morning of Independence Day, the answer was uncovered as a pre-recorded video was shown just after the 11 buses had departed the Marriott Marquis Hotel in midtown Manhattan: they were bound for the United States Military Academy at West Point.
On the video, administrative manager Barry Anderson told the backstory. Last fall, he received a phone call from a Darrin Thirot, one of the Boy Scouts over whom Brother Anderson had served as a Scoutmaster about 20 years previously.
“I just got here a few months ago,” the caller said, “and our lieutenant colonel, the person who’s in charge of the band, has on his bucket list that he wants to play with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sometime,” the caller said. “He knows I’m a member of the Church, so he has asked me to find out how that could happen.”
Brother Anderson was frank in his reply: “You simply can’t afford us. We can’t fly back to West Point.”
But the thought hit him: the choir would be in New York for the upcoming tour.
“I said, ‘Tell me about what you do on the Fourth of July.’” That was the only open date left on the planned tour.
As it happens, July 4 is when the West Point Band presents its annual Independence Day concert that draws 10,000 to 12,000 people to a picturesque amphitheater called Trophy Point, overlooking the Hudson River. It is also the day when the new class of cadets—the freshman class—is recognized as they formally march in to take their seats in the amphitheater.
The event each year ends with a spectacular fireworks display as boats come up the Hudson.
Brother Anderson suggested the choir could come as guests of the academy and perform with the band. Then wheels in his head started turning.
He contacted Bob Breitenbeker and Ed Payne, production manager and executive producer of the Music and the Spoken Word weekly broadcast that features the choir and orchestra, with a thought that a television special could be produced from the event.
Last November, the three men traveled to West Point.
“We pitched the idea of doing the special and explained to them that we would like to tell the stories of patriotism and of West Point,” Brother Anderson said.
Academy leaders then referred them to Lt. Col. Sherman L. Fleek, the command military historian at West Point, who is a member of the Church.
Lt. Col. Fleek took them on a tour of the academy and acquainted them with its history.
“You need to understand that everybody who is anybody in U.S. military history went to West Point,” Brother Anderson said. “Washington was there during the Revolutionary War. On the west point of the Hudson, they set up barricades at a place where, as the British came up the Hudson, they bombed the boats.”
The army corps of engineers, at Washington’s command, found the deepest point in the river where the boats could be sunk. From that event, West Point traditionally has largely been an academy to train engineers.
“What unfolded to us was all of the history,” Brother Anderson said.
The primary reason for the secrecy about the choir’s performance there, he said, is that only 10,000 spectators can be accommodated at Trophy Point. The fear was that if word got out that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was coming, would-be spectators would overrun the venue greatly in excess of the 10,000 that were already expected.
So as it happened, most attendees at the concert were met with the unexpected pleasure of seeing the choir perform there with the West Point Band.
As the entourage of performers and guests arrived on 11 buses July 4, they were met by Lt. Col. Fleek.
Several military and civilian personnel at West Point, members of the Church, gave some of the history of the academy at individual stations. One of those was Capt. Rachael Neff, who showed the group Cullum Hall, constructed in 1898, which serves as a memorial to graduates of the academy who died in combat.
Sister Neff is a member of the West Point Branch of the Church. In a conversation later, she said that she and two of her friends from the branch, Jody Loveland and Stephanie Holbrook, had gone to New York City two days previously to see a Broadway show.
“We saw the Mormon Tabernacle Choir crossing the street,” she said. “We saw the dresses and the tuxedos.”
The choir members were going to Carnegie Hall, where they would perform that evening. The branch members knew of the upcoming performance at West Point but had been sworn to secrecy.
“We saw them and said, ‘That’s them! That’s them!’ We were total fan girls. But we couldn’t say anything because they didn’t know they were coming to West Point yet.”
Because of the secrecy, choir members were obliged just hours beforehand to learn two of the songs they would perform that evening. One of the songs was “Alma Mater,” a traditional song of West Point. Copies of the sheet music were distributed to the choir members, who studied the pieces during the bus ride from New York City. Later, at sound check rehearsal, they practiced the song with the band.
In addition to “Alma Mater,” the choir and the West Point Band, supplemented by the string section from the Orchestra at Temple Square, performed a selection of patriotic songs, including “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “America the Beautiful,” the national anthem, and the choir’s signature piece, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
They also performed “Cohan’s Big Three,” the piece the choir had sung without accompaniment the day before at Yankee Stadium.
Brother Wilberg and Lt. Col. Andy Esch, director of the West Point Band, shared conducting duties.
The West Point Band has roots extending back to the Revolutionary War, when units of George Washington’s Continental Army, including fifers and drummers, established the garrison of West Point in January of 1778.
“What an amazing experience to be here, with the history of early military standard and training and leaders of the United States—it’s an amazing place,” commented Brother Jarrett, the choir's president. The special to be produced from the performance “will give a united and beautiful message to America about how proud we are to be Americans,” he said.