Mormon Tabernacle Choir Rehearses with San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News assistant editor

  • 28 June 2018

Chris Petallano, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, center, sings with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Douglas Myler is on the left and Ian Christensen is on the right.  Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • Music—the universal language and global unifier—can bring people together who may seem at odds.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA

Dr. Timothy Seelig conjured equal parts emotion, enthusiasm, and formal choir training in leading the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a spirited encore rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

As a guest conductor, the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus gave all he could give—but he likely would have sprinted back on the Shoreline Amphitheatre stage for another encore or two.

“It was amazing,” he said in the moments following the historic June 25 concert.

Yes, conducting “America’s Choir” is a big deal for any professional music director. But the circumstances of the evening were perhaps equally astonishing. Just a few weeks ago, Seelig first heard rumblings that his storied organization was being invited to perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

He guessed it was a prank. “Yeah, when pigs fly,” thought the native Texan.

But he soon learned the invite was legitimate. “It took a nanosecond to accept,” he said, smiling. The veteran choral leader knows music is often called a universal language, but it is also a global unifier. It can bring people together who may seem at odds.

Music’s power was on full display on Monday, June 25, on the vast stage of the Shoreline Amphitheatre. There, standing shoulder to shoulder for a sound check rehearsal, was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and several members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

Karen Heath Penman, who has a transgender son, hugs a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus after sound check with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

David Andrade, right, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, sings with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Michael Tate, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, listens to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practice during sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Those watching could spot the chorus guys if they looked for them. San Francisco chorus members were wearing purple T-shirts with the name of the organization emblazoned across their chest.

But otherwise, they blended in with their fellow performers as choir conductors Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy led them through segments of songs to be performed at that night’s concert, the fourth stop of the choir’s 2018 Classic Coast Tour.

Chorus member Chris Petallano expressed a common sentiment heard often before the concert: It’s all about the music. “I believe music is universal … so this opportunity is a blessing,” he said. “I am not surprised that music can bring two different communities together.”

Petallano grew up a Church member and a musician. He remembers listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, “so this is very exciting for me,” he said.

Wherever touring takes the choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square, they look to rehearse with the local choral community in areas where they will perform. So it was only logical they would reach out to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus during a visit to the Bay Area. The San Francisco-based organization, which features some 300 voices, has been touring and recording for four decades.

“The purpose of music is to unite people,” said Mormon Tabernacle Choir president Ron Jarrett. “Music affects people in many ways. This is a great opportunity to bring two cultures, if you will, to the center of things and to build bridges, to make friends, and to make an enjoyable experience for everyone through music.”

Since its beginnings, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has functioned as an ambassador for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That charge was evident during the Mountain View visit. “The chorus members are having a glorious experience, as are our people,” Jarrett said.

Music has been a part of Jarrett’s life since he was a boy. Monday was a reminder to the choir president of music’s power.

Seelig raised his guest conductor’s baton near the conclusion of the concert. He was clearly in his element, bringing in the choir and musicians at just the right moments. He saluted the choir and orchestra following the final measures of “This Land Is Your Land”—and the performers thanked him with enthused applause.

Seelig has enjoyed a long career as a choir director that includes plenty of tours and concerts. Still, his time in front of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir made for unforgettable memories.

“I had a blast; who gets to do that?” he said after conducting the choir during the afternoon rehearsal.

Seelig added that the experience was “a milestone for these two organizations that we did not think would be coming for maybe 10 or 20 years.”

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he said, is “the greatest choir in the world, hands down.” Meanwhile, the chorus he directs is the world’s oldest gay men’s chorus. “We are the granddaddy of the LGBT choral moment. What we do is build bridges.”

Seelig acknowledged “obvious differences” between the two organizations, “but when we get to sing together, it doesn’t matter. We are blending our voices to make music as beautiful as we can.”

He told the Church News he felt some pushback when people learned of the choir’s historic invitation. “It doesn’t heal everything, but it is a step on the part of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to open the doors for this rehearsal to the Gay Men’s Chorus.”

Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Seventy shakes hands with Dr. Timothy Seelig, artistic director and conductor of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, during sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Seelig is the guest conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert at the Shoreline Amphitheatre. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

The sound check rehearsal was serious business as performers and directors worked together to find the perfect sound for the outdoor venue. They knew an audience would be arriving with high expectations. But there were still moments of laughter as two groups brought together by music joined their voices as colleagues.

Chorus member Zach Herries was initially hesitant to perform alongside the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But he was happy to take a seat Monday rehearsing near the front row with the choir.

“I grew up Mormon, so this is part of who I am, and I am grateful for this opportunity.”

Members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus—including Steve Gallagher, front in purple, and Rocky Sharma, second row in purple—sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Thao Hill, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, laughs during sound check with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Chris Petallano, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, center, sings with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Douglas Myler is on the left and Ian Christensen is on the right. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Chris Petallano, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, high fives Ian Christensen, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, during the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Oz Haven, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, sings with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Michael Tate, Clint Johnson, David Andrade, and Thao Hill, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, listen to a closing prayer at the end of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Eric Mata, David Andrade, and Thao Hill, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, listen to a closing prayer at the end of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound check at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.