There seems to be no end to the stories. The stories of a lifetime that Mormon Tabernacle Choir members tell of their three-week June concert tour through middle Europe and Russia a short time before the stunning late-summer developments in the U.S.S.R.
There was the older man outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre—where the choir had just fervently delivered its musical gospel message, including five wondrous encores—calling out to all who would hear his glee: “Lenin—first revolution! Tabernacle Choir—second revolution!”
There was the 26-year-old woman a choir member met after the Warsaw, Poland, concert, who, with tears streaming down her face, said again and again: “Unbelievable. Unbelievable.” When asked what she meant, she said, “You do something for me I never felt before. I cannot say it in English—and I do not know words in Polish, either. I want you to keep singing all night. Then you stop for breakfast only.”
There was the man who, after the Prague, Czechoslovakia, concert, slowly voiced his thoughts to a choir member about his having lived in a land where belief in God was oppressed and atheism was the religion: “I am thirty-eight years old—now I have thirty-eight years of opposite philosophy to get rid of.”
Or the middle-aged man and wife in Budapest, Hungary, who, choking with emotion as they walked up to a choir member at concert’s end, quietly said, “I want you to know—my wife and I, we believe in God, too. We understand what your music tells.”
Or choir member Kathleen Mickelsen’s experience—an experience repeated in one form or another night after night for many choir members, but this one occurred in Leningrad: “Halfway through the concert, my eyes were drawn to a woman in the audience—and I noticed her eyes were drawn to me. She just melted at our singing of ‘Love So Amazing, So Divine,’ a song about Christ on the cross. We kept looking at each other through the rest of the concert—and I sang the songs as my testimony to her with all my heart.” After the final encore, while the choir members waved to the audience as they filed offstage, the woman and Kathleen forged their way through the crowd to meet, embrace, and emotionally communicate—through words, if possible, though language barriers generally made that difficult. If not, through tears, long, warm handclasps, and soulful expressions of “thank you” indigenous to each language and nation.
To see the great 22-day swath cut by the choir across Europe in any other terms than emotionally charged and spiritually rich would be to miss the very essence of the choir’s missionary journey. And missionaries they were—to the thousands they met in their daily interaction with people everywhere, to the tens of thousands they faced in the storied opera and philharmonic halls in the capital cities of the lands, and to the tens of millions who watched or heard the concerts on television and radio.
The choir bused or jetted 4,200 miles, through eight countries—Germany, the edge of France, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the U.S.S.R. They averaged one performance a day, singing twenty times in all: twelve formal concerts, one short outdoor program, three sacrament meetings, and four member-and-investigator firesides.
Into these cities and lands moved on cadence a modern-day spiritual army of the Lord nightly calling out a battle hymn, informing listeners that indeed “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.”
But the musical thrust of the tour (and its attendant emotional and spiritual impact) was only one of four powerful strategies connected with the mission.
First, the mere fact that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was on tour and coming to town elicited waves of advance publicity—stories of all stripes about the choir, its volunteer nature, its highly esteemed conductor Jerold Ottley, its organists and soloists. And, of course, there was much opportunity for background about the church the choir represents, with significant reference to Latter-day Saint beliefs and life-styles in the media of the former Eastern Bloc countries. Church Public Affairs advance team Michael Otterson and Michael Obst felt media delight as they set up countless interviews for radio, TV, and print media, and answered innumerable questions about the Church.
A typical media barrage occurred in Warsaw, where Polish National TV reporters met the choir at the airport and interviewed choir officers while choir members cleared customs. Reporters conducted further interviews with choir members while they were being bused into the city; and once they arrived in Warsaw, the choir was met with a phalanx of other news and radio people, who interviewed choir members and leaders at length regarding basic Church beliefs about the family and moral values.
To date, Church Public Affairs personnel report hundreds of known pre-concert articles about the choir and the Church published in European periodicals. Articles published after the concerts will take months—perhaps a year—to collect!
The second emphasis of the Church’s campaign was the series of concerts—the enormously successful two hours of musical and spiritual feasting that never ended with fewer than three encores, with a tour average of more than five encores nightly after each concert. These encores often included pulsating, rhythmic clapping or foot-stamping, whistles and calls of “Bravo, Bravo,” and standing ovations that twice would not end until the last choir member had departed from the stage.
“After the Leningrad concert, I walked out in front of the Philharmonic Hall. People were milling around everywhere. If I extended my hand at all, anyone nearby would eagerly reach out and take it—many of them just to hold it for long moments. Sometimes we’d both shed tears—no words able to be understood between us at all,” said DeAnne Zarbock.
At the end of the Moscow concert, a man who said he was a nuclear scientist told a choir member, “I like your singing about God. My friend here is from Siberia. He wants to know when your missionaries go to Siberia.”
Also in Moscow, a bus guide was invited by choir members to the concert that evening. She stood during the entire performance: “I was too involved to sit. I thank you for greatest pleasure and greatest spiritual experience of my life.”
The first two areas of emphasis—the media advance publicity and the concerts themselves—impacted the general public. The third and fourth areas of emphasis, however, were aimed at smaller, selected groups.
The third emphasis of the Church’s spiritual campaign was a group of six receptions and five dinners, generally following the concerts, to which were invited each nation’s and each host city’s governmental leaders, embassy and consular officials, prominent figures in education, science, the arts, and business, and leaders of other churches. Mingling with them were some members of the choir and local Latter-day Saint ecclesiastical leaders—stake presidents, mission presidents, district presidents, or branch presidents, whatever was applicable to the area. The intent was to build upon the rapport earned in the concerts and to establish cordial and productive relationships among local Church leaders and national and local leaders.
The receptions were all held in those areas where the Church is well known and where a substantial base of membership resides—Frankfurt, Strasbourg, Zurich, Vienna, and in the two cities of the former East Germany—Dresden and Berlin. The dinners, on the other hand, were held in those nations and cities where the Church is still new and where Church membership is small—Budapest, Hungary; Prague, Czechoslovakia; Warsaw, Poland; and Moscow and Leningrad, Russia.
These dinners of state, as they were called, were hosted by prominent Latter-day Saint businessmen and civic leaders. Using their own money, these members hosted the dinners in order to express to governmental and civic leaders the value they place in their own lives on religion and on their membership in the Church. These invitation-only occasions, orchestrated for the Church by Beverly Campbell of Washington, D.C., international affairs director for the Church’s Public Affairs Department, were marvelously successful in building bridges, giving numerous opportunities for warm welcomes and responses and for the presentation of mementos, all helping to clarify the nature of the Church and its purposes.
At the dinner following the Budapest concert, the Speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly said, “We are convinced that your simple truth—liberty—is the one wanted in the world. And the sounds of solidarity from choirs must not be destroyed—they cannot be destroyed!”
The deputy minister of culture for the U.S.S.R. spoke at the Moscow dinner following the concert and said: “I must emphasize we have things in common with you Mormons—as no smoking and drinking—but, I must admit, with less success. You are sending us your love and beauty, and we are looking for the same things. I have become more convinced that we share common ideals as we talked with your missionaries at the table.”
The fourth emphasis of the Church’s campaign was the spiritual wellspring of four firesides (average attendance eight hundred) and four choir-oriented sacrament meetings, to which all who wanted to know more about the Church were welcome. In these settings, the teachings of the Church were inspiringly reviewed by several local members or leaders who shared their testimonies of the gospel. There then followed addresses from the General Authorities present who were associated with the tour—Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve, who accompanied the choir because of his assignment, until recently, to oversee the Church in Europe; and Elders Hans B. Ringger, Spencer J. Condie, and Albert Choules, Jr., of the Seventy, who at that time were serving as the Europe Area Presidency.
“During the Leningrad concert,” said James B. Kennard, “I kept making eye contact with a man in the audience. I found him afterwards and invited him to the fireside the next evening. He and his two sons came to the fireside and then invited us to their apartment, where we held a gospel discussion. They happily agreed to read the Book of Mormon and visit with the missionaries. At the evening’s end, our wives tearfully embraced and hugged each other.”
“I met Natasha at the Sunday sacrament meeting in Moscow,” said choir member Ruth Carr. “She was a convert of six weeks and the mother of seven children. As we talked, I had the strongest impression that ‘I know you. I know you already.’ I checked to make sure she was coming to Monday’s concert. The next night, after the final encore of ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again,’ she was overwhelmed and was looking for me. When we met she said, ‘God help me find you. I worry I not find you.’ We made arrangements to meet the next day, our second free day of the tour. When we met, Natasha handed me a note that read, ‘Last night I not sleep. I ask Heavenly Father help me speak English tomorrow.’ We spent the entire day together—and as we used the dictionary back and forth through the day, we had a totally delightful time together. At the end of our day of visiting, she said, ‘You my first friend.’ To which I replied, ‘I am just the first of many, many friends you will have in the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”
These four emphases associated with the 1991 Mormon Tabernacle Choir tour—the advance publicity, the concerts, the receptions and dinners, and the firesides and sacrament meetings—were powerful instruments of the Lord in helping bring about public recognition, goodwill, and understanding of the Church for countless people in all the lands visited.
“I pay tribute to the First Presidency of this church,” said Elder Nelson, “for their decision to explore the possibility of a Tabernacle Choir tour through these lands long before the historic political breakthroughs and crumbling of the walls occurred. To me it is clear evidence of their prophetic powers.”
Knowing about the tour beforehand was also a call to prepare—and prepare themselves the choir members did, linguistically as well as musically. Half of the twelve concerts were performed in German-speaking cities—Frankfurt, Zurich, Vienna, Dresden, and Berlin (two concerts); one concert was presented in French-speaking Strasbourg, one in Hungarian-speaking Budapest, one in Czech-speaking Prague, one in Polish-speaking Warsaw, and two in Russian-speaking Moscow and Leningrad. For each of these nationalities and language groups, the choir learned—stunningly!—the national anthem or national song of each land, as well as a beloved national folk song. In addition, they sang a major work in Hebrew. Also, because this year is the two-hundredth anniversary of Mozart’s death, the choir often sang a selection of Mozart’s works in Latin. And, of course, they sang works written in English—meaning that in all, they learned to pronounce the sounds of eight other languages! Two-a-week choir rehearsals were in order for many months prior to the tour, as well as “more personal hours of practice, memorization, and learning to pronounce the words,” said a choir member, “than I’ve ever put into anything in my whole life.”
Then there was the spiritual preparation. “I’ve been in the choir ten years,” said Susan Christensen, “and I’ve been on other tours, but I knew this was to be something special and also something very hard. All of us were asked to prepare ourselves spiritually. With other choir members, I prayed a great deal. I read the scriptures, studied, and fasted. I went to the temple to know of my readiness. I hope others will not misunderstand, but I think we felt ready to be used as instruments of the Lord.”
“How many people get to have Alma’s wish?” said Suzanne Tate. “You know the one—‘O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth … with the trump of God.’ (Alma 29:1.) Can you imagine how it feels to be able to use your trumpet for the Lord and to sing out to one hundred million people listening and watching where the gospel word has not gone? But you have to be ready!”
To be ready to greet people after a concert as well as in all their interactions with people while they toured was a major goal of choir members. “Each of us has been set apart,” said Kenneth Wilks, “to serve as a Tabernacle Choir missionary.”
Among other things, this means that each choir member goes on tour with dozens of tape recordings of the choir, a hundred Articles of Faith cards, and another hundred missionary referral cards, all categorized with each country’s mission home address and telephone number. Like all missionaries, choir members purchase the tapes and cards at their own expense—a further gift of self that each singer brings to the people he or she meets. If the spiritual impact of the choir is awesome, it is because it ought to be! With 313 of its 324 members on the European tour, the choir already numbered more than the combined average of two full-time missions fully stocked with missionaries. To send forth into a city or into a post-concert audience 313 missionaries and their thirty-two staff helpers (more than 500 missionaries when counting the spouses of choir members who paid their own way to accompany the Choir), is to invite the inevitable—an outpouring of spiritual experiences, the kind of experiences known to members worldwide:
“Two months before the tour, I had an impression to look for a face in the audience while on tour, so I prayed that I would find the face,” said Janalee Free. “Then I had a dream—I saw a person, but no face. Somehow the idea that he was Czechoslovakian was in my mind. Each concert night I looked for the face. After the Prague concert, I saw a man clutching his program as he looked intently at me. I put out my hand to him, and in that instant I knew it was him. He held my hand with such intensity and emotion. We exchanged names. He said he never could have imagined what he felt at the concert. ‘I cannot explain it,’ he said. ‘Would you like a tape of the choir?’ I asked. He cried as I gave it to him. He held it close to his chest as I filled out a referral card for the missionaries.”
“Tell Them That I Love Them”
Following the concert in Prague, Czechoslovakia, a choir member went outside Smetana Hall and walked up to greet a father and mother and their teenager, but they were unable to communicate. Very shortly a young man stepped up to translate. As he talked, he said that the couple were his parents, that he had gone to the United States as an exchange student, had found the Church, and had been baptized. But he said that his parents were very much against his decision and that he had practically forced them to come to the concert that evening. He explained, however, that during the concert, “they come on fire.” “We talked for a few more minutes, then I turned to the parents and said to the English-speaking son, ‘Tell your parents that if they want to be truly happy, they will join the Church. Tell them the gospel is true. Tell them that I love them.’ The Spirit was overpowering! They hugged me. They kissed me. They held my hand. And they said they would see the missionaries.”
“Are You an Apostle?”
“We have a distant relative in Warsaw and so we informed him of the choir’s coming,” said Charlene Van Wagenen Gale. “After the concert, with a picture of him in hand, I looked for him until I found him. At his home that evening, we talked of the gospel—modern revelation, the Restoration, the Word of Wisdom. On occasion, tears would stream down his his face. After we discussed Apostles and prophets, in the midst of our conversation, he asked, ‘Are you an Apostle?’ ‘No, I’m a disciple,’ I said, and explained the difference. ‘But you speak with such conviction,’ he said. ‘I only speak what I know,’ I replied. He said, ‘I want to know why I feel the way I feel when you speak.’ I talked to him about the Holy Ghost and then asked him, ‘Would you like to visit the missionaries to learn more?’ The answer was yes.”
“I Am Light Man”
“After the Budapest, Hungary, concert I walked up to two full-bearded men,” said Kay Lynn Wakefield. “I asked if they enjoyed the concert, putting my hand out to greet one of them. He looked around, wondering who I was talking to. I then gave him an Articles of Faith card. He backed away, saying, ‘I am light man’—an electrical technician for the concert. He seemed surprised I would talk to him. I assured him I was happy to talk to him, and I thanked him for his lighting. I asked him who his friend was, and he said he spoke no English and was studying for the ministry. At this point, he said again, ‘I am light man only.’ I then put my hand on the arm of this man, looked him in the eye, and said, ‘You are a child of God and he loves you very much.’ I bore my testimony to him, telling him that we represented our Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I asked him to translate this message to his non-English-speaking friend. As he repeated my words, he began to weep. It seemed almost as if a protective bubble fell over us and we no longer heard the noise of the crowd. I told them both how they could get a Book of Mormon from the missionaries. The student was visibly moved and promised that he would get and read the book.”
“When I Got to the Name of Joseph Smith”
“Before the concert at the Bolshoi,” said Ann Halversen, “I felt a hand on my arm. ‘Would you tell me more about Mormons?’ said a woman. ‘Do you speak English?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Are you Christian?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Did you know that Christ came to America after he was resurrected?’ I asked. ‘He did!’ she exclaimed, wide-eyed. I then briefly gave an overview of the Book of Mormon. I felt to keep going—to tell her how we obtained the Book of Mormon. When I got to the name of Joseph Smith, the Spirit was so powerful that the instant I said his name I started to cry. The Spirit was so strong that she started to cry, too. ‘What is it that I am feeling?’ she tearfully asked. I then explained about the Holy Ghost. Immediately she reached out and stopped me and said, ‘This is what I have been looking for.’ Before the evening was over, I was able to introduce her to the missionaries.”
“I Want the Book”
“I had carried with me a Russian Book of Mormon through the entire tour, and by Saturday—the last day of the tour—I had not handed it out. I wondered why I had not given it away earlier,” said Wilma S. Livsey. “As I went to breakfast in our Leningrad hotel, up the stairs came one of our Russian guides—a beautiful young woman. She asked if I was ready to go. I said, ‘No, I have to find a place for my Book of Mormon.’ I showed it to her. She said she would like it. Surprised, I said, ‘No, this book is for someone very special. It must be. I have carried it all over eastern Europe waiting for the right person to give it to.’ She again said that she would like the book. ‘But this book must go to someone who will read it. It is in Russian.’ Then she said with great intensity, ‘I read Russian. I will read it. I want the book!’ Tears welled up in her eyes as she said, ‘I’d like to start reading it right now.’ I then handed the book to her. I told her that the book was a second witness for Christ—and that the Bible was the first. I told her of the promise in the book of Moroni, and told her that if she prayed after she read it, and if she felt the same about it as I did, she was to get in touch with missionaries. I gave her a card with the mission home address on it. Tears came down both our faces as we hugged, and she again said, ‘I want the book. I promise I will read it.’”
The stories go on and on—stories for a lifetime.
“In the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, I don’t know if I’ll ever experience anything like this again,” said Tom Rogerson. “I’ve never heard the choir do so well. It was the most spiritual, emotional, exciting, exhausting experience of my life. In the concerts—especially in the Eastern Bloc and Russian areas—you’d see people by mid-concert finally look you in the eye, then smile. And then at the end we would just weep together afterwards.”
Said Marcie Alley, “This was a very hard trip for many choir members. The Lord often asked things that were quite difficult for some of us, and we have tried very hard. And as we have done our part, blessings have come. To ask singers or anyone to travel half a day or more, do a two-hour concert that night, get up the next morning after five or sometimes six hours of sleep, often carry your own heavy luggage to new quarters, be very cautious about all your food and water intake in order to stay healthy so that you can sing again—only a group of committed Latter-day Saints would eagerly do it! But you get in there, and before you know it, you are filled with the Spirit. You feel you could sing all night. There is no way you could come on a tour like this and not gain a testimony of who is behind it.”
Said a choir member: “I accomplished everything I set out to do. I left my testimony with them every night for two hours. I gave them everything I had. Everything.”
Church Growth in Tour Areas
Germany—36,000 members, 16 stakes, and 2 temples (in Frankfurt and Freiberg). The above total includes the area formerly known as the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), where approximately 4,500 members live.
France—18,100 members, 5 stakes. A total of 24,000 French-speaking members reside in the French-speaking areas of Europe—France, Switzerland, and Belgium.
Switzerland—6,500 members, 3 stakes, and 1 temple (in Zollikofen).
Hungary—400 members, 1 district.
Austria—3,500 members, 1 stake.
Czechoslovakia—400 members, 1 district.
Poland—200 members, 1 district.
Russia—300 members (of which 100 live in Estonia, to the west).
The nature of Church growth is described by Gary Browning, president of the Helsinki East Mission, which serves members of the Church in Russia: “I think some people thought droves of persons would join the Church once the gospel became available to citizens of Russia. Yes, there will be many members someday, but as in any land, the Church grows slowly. First, a lot of people find interest in it, find the Church has some fascination for them. But when they probe into it and find out that personal discipleship of Christ is the goal, then other things often begin to take precedence for some of them. The result is that when it is all shaken out, there is a residue of beautiful people, truly the salt of the earth, who have testimonies, who know the gospel is true, who want to live it, who will do anything righteous for it, and who know its power and impact in their lives. The gospel works here as it works anywhere else in the world: one person at a time making a covenant with the Lord to change his or her life and to progress with God.”
“The Lord Wants This Tour”
Wendell M. Smoot, president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was in his office that day, April 29, 1991, talking about the upcoming June 8 Tabernacle Choir tour to middle Europe and Russia.
He is a man “on fire,” one choir member said. “He’s just perfect for us. He’s the business head and president, and has brought such a spiritual dimension to the choir. We just love him!”
Today he was basking in the assurance that though the tour had not yet begun, he knew everything was going to be all right, that the tour was going to be a success.
“Let me tell a remarkable story,” he said. “As in any such tour, you have to sign ahead of time your contracts for the airlines that will fly you to your destination, the halls where you are going to perform, the hotels where you are going to house and feed 510 people—everything that Udell Poulsen, our business manager, will have to follow through on. It is customary to have certain payment dates at stated intervals, with some contracts requiring very heavy payments. The date of February 7, 1991, became a very important date, because on that day we had to put down a substantial amount of money. Late in January, I began to be very concerned.
“Do people remember what was going on in the world at that time?” he asked. “The air campaign against Iraq had started on January 16, a projected ground war was imminent, and fear of terrorism and hostage-taking was prevalent all over Europe. Individuals and organizations were canceling various plans and events due to the fear associated with the war. The people abroad with whom we were making arrangements feared that we, too, might cancel out.
“I got all kinds of calls from people in Europe trying to pressure us—trying to make sure we would not cancel. ‘Do you realize that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Mormon Church will be thought of as wimps if you cancel?’ I was told. I answered, ‘We’re not talking about canceling—but that is a possibility if this war continues to worsen.’
“So, on Friday, February 1, I called President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency, the man I report to. ‘President, I need to see you,’ I said. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Come on over.’
“I went over and laid it all out to him. I then said, ‘President, the reputation of the Church is at stake if we cancel and this war stops soon. You can imagine what will be thought of us if we default on all our obligations, after pleading and begging to get into these prestigious concert halls and getting the promoters behind us. On the other hand, how tragic it would be to blindly go and put at risk all these people, their lives and their families. President, if there is any possibility whatsoever that the First Presidency would think of canceling this trip, I need to know now because of the big amount of money we need to put down Thursday, February 7. President, I’m here to get counsel.’
“The weekend passed, and on Monday morning I called and said, ‘President, I wonder if you have made a decision with the First Presidency concerning the matter I discussed with you last Friday.’
“President Hinckley said, ‘Wendell, I have thought about little else since you were here.’ There was a moment of silence. Then he said, ‘I will say this. The choir will go to Europe this coming summer. The war will be over.’
“I said, ‘President, that’s all I needed to hear.’ At the conclusion of our conversation, I took steps to fulfill our financial commitment, and we moved ahead.
“That day was February 4. The ground campaign of that tragic war didn’t start until February 24! And after it did start, the fighting ended with a cease-fire on February 28.
“But from those two conversations, I learned that this tour that we are about to go on is ordained of the Lord, that the Lord wants this tour. He wants us to go, and we will go and be preserved and be successful because this is a call from the Lord.”
The day was April 29—still forty days before the Tabernacle Choir’s scheduled departure.
• Friedrichsdorf and Frankfurt, Germany, Monday, June 10: If anxious members of the Tabernacle Choir seek a confirmation of things to come, they receive it on this first concert day here on the lawn of the Frankfurt Germany Temple in the suburb of Friedrichsdorf. A twenty-minute outdoor “concert” scheduled to begin at 12:30 P.M. has been delayed some minutes due to heavy drizzle, but with five hundred townspeople looking on, those in charge move ahead with the public greetings between Friedrichsdorf Mayor Gerd Schmidt and Elder Russell M. Nelson. Drizzle continues. Then the choir begins to sing “Alleluia,” a song whose lyrics consist of one reverent word—alleluia, meaning “praise to God,” repeated sixty-five consecutive times. Within a minute the rain stops. In a few more minutes, wind breaks up the clouds, blue skies appear, and sunlight beams down. A Frankfurt newspaper headed their story “Alleluia Stops the Rain.” Tonight’s opening concert in Frankfurt’s palatial Alte Oper before an audience of 2,250 is a striking, four-encore success.
• Zurich, Switzerland, Thursday, June 13: Following a Tuesday night concert in Strasbourg, France, in the scintillatingly acoustic Palais des Congrés hall before an enthusiastic audience of 2,000, tonight the choir sings in the Hallenstadion—an indoor stadium where hockey games and horse shows are held, and major musical figures often perform. Though it is impossible for even 313 voices to reverberate in this vast arena with its audience of 8,400, a beautiful spirit prevails. Far-off listeners seem riveted to their seats. Tonight’s sellout crowd is particularly noteworthy because, in contrast to all the other tour concerts (booked by the London firm Specialized Travel and promoted by local promoters in each city) this concert was booked and promoted by the members of the Church, at their request.
—Friday morning, June 14: A Church member delivers the equivalent of three bags of M&M candies to each choir member in appreciation for last night’s concert. Choir members vote to open no candies, rather to transport them to Poland and Russia and give them to children.
• Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, June 15: A major change in the nature of the tour takes place tonight in the aged Opera House before 1,400 when the choir performs its first concert in a previously Communist-controlled, Eastern Bloc state. “The Spirit was so strong tonight you could almost reach out and touch it,” says a choir member after the first of many emotionally draining and spiritually soaring evenings. In tonight’s concert, the first of three “Music and the Spoken Word” performances is videotaped as part of the concert—amidst proud Hungarians who know that the segment will be broadcast throughout the world.
—Sunday, June 16: Elder Nelson thrills choir members in their Sunday sacrament meeting as he tells the details of the Church’s planting gospel seeds in the Eastern Bloc countries and the Russian Republic.
• Vienna, Austria, Monday, June 17: Tonight in the Musikverein, home of Brahms and many other musical giants, the second “Music and the Spoken Word” performance is videotaped for delayed broadcast worldwide. Two thousand joyful listeners, many of them Saints, do not want the choir to stop—even after six encores! A head of ORF SAT 3, a TV station televising the concert, says that tonight’s standing ovation is a rarity in the Musikverein, where he has previously seen only two others.
• Prague, Czechoslovakia, Tuesday, June 18: Another very spiritually rich concert experience, this time in Smetana Hall before 1,300, in the second former Eastern Bloc land visited by the choir. The evening becomes a lifetime memory for choir and audience when the first encore is sung—a Czech folk song “Tece, Voda, Tece.” The song, understood by all to be about the elusiveness of liberty and freedom, has been banned during periods of Czech history because dictatorships did not want it fomenting rebellion among the people. Since the crumbling of Communism’s powers, the song is no longer banned—yet it is with some boldness that the choir sings it tonight. Not all Soviet soldiers have departed from Czechoslovakia.
The audience’s response is awesome—except for the choir, a great hush fills the hall. Over a third of the audience stands, some holding their arms up in the air, many tearful and weeping—some seeming nearly overcome—as the audience drinks in words and music with great emotion.
After the concert, a head of Czech TV observes that he has never before seen a standing ovation in Smetana Hall.
• Dresden, Germany, Wednesday, June 19: En route, the choir detours to lunch at the Freiberg Germany Temple grounds. Speaking to choir members, temple president Henry Burkhardt says, “It didn’t take long for citizens of Freiberg to say ‘our temple.’ Many times we see couples—young people who are not members of the Church and who are preparing to marry or have married—who come to have their picture taken with the temple in the background. They know they can’t go inside. But they know something about its being a symbol of everlasting marriage and love. They feel the spirit of the grounds.”
Tonight’s concert is the first in what used to be known as East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) prior to the coming down of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. In the Kulturpalast, the 2,400-person audience introduce a first for the tour—their clapping will not stop until the last choir member has walked offstage five or more minutes after the last encore. Audience and choir members wave good-bye to each other for the entire five minutes.
• Berlin, Germany, Thursday, June 20: A very weary choir, running on the Spirit, love, and memory, performs two concerts, matinee and evening, in the spectacular former Communist showcase, the restored Schauspielhaus. Tonight, more than 1,500 attenders foot-stamp uproarious ovations. The evening becomes doubly memorable for attenders when administrative assistant of the choir and former [1953 to 1957] mission president over East Germany Herold Gregory steps up to the microphone to wish all a good night and to announce that Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, has just voted a few minutes ago to transfer its offices, the nation’s chancellor, and his cabinet from Bonn to Berlin. The response is ear-splitting!
• Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, June 22: A repeat again of emotional and spiritual outpourings. What it must be like not to have had freedom! At 3:30 p. m. the dedication of the first LDS chapel built on Polish soil occurs in Warsaw. Much media attention is given as a result of this “religious initiative.”
• Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 24: The third “Music and the Spoken Word” performance is videotaped during this evening’s Bolshoi Theatre concert before 2,400, seated three-deep in the five circular balcony tiers of this renowned hall. For many, another rich, emotional evening occurs, the same as at all concerts in the former Eastern Bloc lands. Hope and the Spirit of the Lord seem to press everywhere!
The first encore, “Hospodi Pomilui” (meaning “Lord, have mercy on us”), a hymn during which that phrase is voiced repetitiously seventy-seven times, seems this night to be as a great prayer of national penance in this land that has been seen by many as a symbol of oppression. The choir’s great, emotional pleading of the words powerfully moves the entire audience.
At the dinner of state held after the concert, the vice president of the Russian Republic announces that on May 28, less than a month ago, this largest of the fifteen republics in the Soviet Union has given official recognition to the Church throughout the entire breadth and depth of the republic, which covers three-quarters of the land mass of the Soviet Union and holds approximately 150 million people.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve joins the choir entourage, enlarged this day by the hundred or more Utahns joining Jon M. Huntsman in the dedication of a factory in Armenia that will produce high-tech concrete to house homeless Armenians suffering from a 1988 earthquake. In appreciation for the service the Church rendered to quake victims, a plot of land in the city of Yerevan is given to the Church by officials of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Elder Russell M. Nelson and Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy express gratitude for the gift. The site will be used to construct a multipurpose building containing offices, a Church meetinghouse, and residences for Church volunteer workers helping to train Armenians in home construction.
• Leningrad, Russia, Thursday, June 27: How is it possible for the emotional, spiritual, and musical highs to keep on going! Tonight six encores are performed to a cheering, crying audience! For the second time, an audience will not stop clapping until the last choir member has walked offstage, audience and choir members poignantly waving good-bye to each other.
“Wonderful! Wonderful! Spiritual! Spiritual! Leningrad is happy again! This is a holiday,” calls out a man in strongly Russian-accented English. The concerts are now over. But a day remains for visiting new Russian friends and tomorrow’s closing fireside of choir music and the testimonies of Russian converts. Elder Nelson tells the choir: “You have been totally successful in all we expected you to do.”
For over one hundred million television viewers in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the first spark of knowledge regarding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came as a result of the 1991 tour of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The same is true for tens of millions more viewers and listeners in the nations of what used to be known as the Eastern Bloc.
Beyond all expectations, the choir’s tour provided the pivotal event—the springboard—from which it became possible to tell millions of people, for the first time, something of the story of the Restoration.
Despite the historical atheism of the U.S.S.R., the news media in Moscow and Leningrad asked repeatedly for explanations of who the “Mormons” are, how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differs from other faiths, how it came into being, and what motivates its members. One radio commentator referred repeatedly to the “spirit” of the choir and its members.
Russian news men and women, in particular, were not just willing to listen. They were eager. What often began as an exploratory conversation for a short news item would quickly yield a one-hour radio program or a substantial TV segment.
In Leningrad, tears filled the eyes of the Moscow-based TV producer as choir member Joyce T. Muhlestein bore her testimony directly to the camera. That interview and others were to be incorporated into a half-hour program to be screened later, statewide, to 100 million potential viewers.
When planning began some two years ago for news coverage of the 1991 Tabernacle Choir tour, challenges were immediately evident. Even if specific contacts with news organizations could be established, the media itself was in such turmoil in 1989 and 1990 that developing personal contacts and relationships was almost impossible. Heads of news and program departments would seemingly change overnight. New publications would appear, only to go out of print in a few weeks.
Yet by the time the choir arrived, patient groundwork and a combination of unexpected factors suddenly yielded results. Not the least of these was the timely formation, on Christmas Day last year, of the Russian State Radio and Television Company—a democratic and commercial broadcasting network that reaches 92 percent of the state’s more than 147 million people with its TV programs. What had appeared impossible six months earlier suddenly became possible. In cities of the West—Frankfurt, Strasbourg, Zurich, and Vienna—news of the choir’s visit had to compete with current television programming, the more familiar media challenge faced by the Church in most places.—, a director in the Church Public Affairs Department.
TV and Radio Broadcasts
Drawing upon long-standing contacts in the countries of the West and breaking new ground in most countries in the former Eastern Bloc, Bonneville Communications (the Church’s broadcasting arm) successfully negotiated public service airtime for the concerts in the state-owned radio and television networks.
Participating organizations and potential audiences included, chronologically: Hungarian Magyar radio and TV (10 million), Austrian Radio and TV (2 million), ORF SAT 3 with satellite coverage from Iceland to Israel and Turkey, Czechoslovak National radio and TV (15 million), German radio (Dresden and Berlin concerts nationally—24 million), Polish radio and TV (38 million), and Soviet radio and TV (250 million).
Besides broadcasting the actual concerts, most organizations also filmed an introductory documentary about the Church and the Tabernacle Choir.
Also, the state radio and TV organizations in Budapest, Vienna, and Moscow helped record the three “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts that were aired on CBS and other networks throughout the world during the three weeks of the tour. These organizations also provided TV personalities to narrate the programs.—, Director of International Media Relations for Bonneville Communications, who arranged for the choir’s radio, TV, and satellite concert coverage.
Their Concert Message
We have heard of the concerts’ results—encores, cheers, thunderous clapping, and tears—more tears than one could have imagined. But what was it that these audiences heard in the two-hour concerts performed night after night?
In summary, the concert they came to hear was an inspiring Church meeting in song, powerfully formulated by Tabernacle Choir music director Jerold Ottley.
Following the singing of the nation’s anthem or national song, in places where that was appropriate (in some places singing of such anthems is not regarded as acceptable), each evening began with an artistic overview of the concert when the choir sang lines adapted from Walt Whitman’s “A Song of Joys”:
(Norman Dello Joio, “A Jubilant Song.”)
After this promise of things to come, an unmistakable musical prayer was offered upon the meeting. In the rich, subtle tones of the choir, reverently fell out the words of LeRoy Robertson’s “The Lord’s Prayer”: “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name.” The deep, resonating sound of the basses seemed to undergird all of nature in their plea. When “The Lord’s Prayer” was not sung, the choir’s reverent petition was the hymn of praise, “Alleluia.”
Then came the heavy doctrinal messages in each evening’s concert. How fitting that in these lands where scattered Israel is spread out like sand upon the seashore, and where those of Judah have been so heavily oppressed, the call went out in Hebrew from Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” whose words are taken from Psalm texts. It was as a message from the Old Testament, witnessing that the promises of ancient prophets are ready to be fulfilled.
In mildly discordant tones reminiscent of their trials through the ages, the choir sang in Hebrew these words:
Then from Robert Cundick’s “The Redeemer” came the great promise of the redemption—this time using the texts and the English language of the great latter-day Restoration to show how Old Testament promises were fulfilled:
The majestic shadings of the last lines seemed to aurally open the doors to the Lord, doing musically what Thorvaldsen’s open-armed statue The Christus does visually. Said a choir member, “When we get to the point where we sing out ‘Freely, freely, freely,’ it is almost too much for me. I’m almost overcome with emotion.”
No matter what changes in musical selections were made in various concerts, these two scriptural presentations—“Chichester Psalms” and songs from “The Redeemer”—were always sung. It was their impact on the spiritually sensitive, and that of the Spirit which worked through them, that elicited a considerable number of the emotional and spiritual experiences with which choir members were blessed during the tour.
A similar impact came from the intensity of “Love So Amazing, So Divine,” an audience favorite with words by Isaac Watts:
Said a choir member, “On the way to the concert I always say a prayer to know who in the audience to sing to. I consider seriously the words of the songs we are to sing. When I sing ‘See, from his head, his hands, his feet’—it’s as if I’m bearing personal testimony to the person in the audience I’ve selected. I feel the Spirit so strongly.”
At this point in the program, a change of pace took place. The sermons had been delivered. Now came the suggestions for applying the gospel message. In these lands that have known generations of military conflict and pain, always exuberantly received was the black American spiritual “Down by the Riverside”:
It was time for the last part of the program and the encore section—the toe-tappers and hand-clappers, songs heralding the joyous blessings of those who get aboard the gospel train. If they had not done it yet, it was time now for those roof-raising sopranos, warmly soothing altos, brightly toned tenors, and rumbling basses to do their thing. The choir sang:
“Shenandoah,” an American folk song from boatmen on the Missouri. The choir’s pure, pristine tone gives unsullied voice to everyone’s fondest dreams as they sing, “O Shenando’, I long to see you.”
“Deep River,” another folk song, in which the wondrous bass voices seem to reach down into river bottom as they roll out, “Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.”
“When the Saints Go Marching In,” with its unforgettable rhythm-and-blues call of “Oh, when the saints go marching in … Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number. … Oh, when the new world is revealed … Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number.”
The choir closed each concert—prior to encores—with “Cindy,” a folk song from America’s Scottish and Irish settlers. Its point, happily made in the choir’s inimitably lush harmonies, is that dreams can come true:
Its robust character, syncopated onstage clapping, and final shout of “Hooray!” guaranteed encores.
Among the encores was always the worldwide Tabernacle Choir favorite—the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” One choir member said: “I used to think the ‘Battle Hymn’ was just a song from the American Civil War. But it has come to mean more than that to people. It is a song of faith that there is a God, that this world isn’t just whizzing through space on its own. He’s there. He’s coming. And He’s got a work for us to do. The words took on new meaning for me while we sang them to these people who have not had freedom and have not been able to even learn about the gospel. The words became critical for me: He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat. He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat. In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me. As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free. God is marching on.”
The service is now over. The addresses have been given and a listing of the promises and joys awaiting believers has been joyously presented.
Of their truthfulness, an entire choir and musical ensemble have testified. It is time to bring the meeting to a close. It is time for “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” the closing prayer of the 313 missionaries to their eager congregation: “By his counsels guide, uphold you; with his sheep securely fold you,” they nearly whisper. “God be with you till we meet again.”
Many in the audience thought they were going to enjoy just another evening out. What they got was a world-class concert and a glorious Church meeting all wrapped into one.
Shapers of Sound
To watch them shape, tuck, and fold the edges of sound is a pleasure.
Jerold D. Ottley, director of the Tabernacle Choir and its principal conductor, steps out briskly from stage right, smiles warmly to the audience, and, with a swoop of the hand, signals the choir to stand as he bounds to the podium. His leadership electrifies them. Trim, white-haired, wearing glasses, he holds up the baton to see if all is in readiness with musicians and singers. All eyes are on him. His arm and baton movements are clean, spare. He directs with striking grace and power—and captivating dignity.
The choir members’ voices begin to flow—turned and molded in whatever way Brother Ottley desires. But always their sound is that of grace and power. And great dignity.
Donald H. Ripplinger, associate director and conductor of the choir, stands at Brother Ottley’s side, ready to follow up on dozens of details he has been assigned. His love for the choir’s director and for the choir is loyalty unbounded. He conducts some of the great songs of faith for which the choir is widely known. He stands, hands open and fingers curved, in a unique style. As the sound breaks forth, his palms subtly sway—seeming to caress the actual tones in midair as he reverently feels them rush through his fingers. It is clear—his love for the gospel knows no bounds.
The Other Strains
Why do members of the Church love the Tabernacle Choir so much? Many are the reasons. Surely one is that in this great, wonderful mass of voices symbolic of the Church, we see something of ourselves. When we look and listen, we see no prima donna. Yet the glorious whole is filled with distinct faces and personalities, each joyfully doing his or her part.
Besides the glorious voices of the 313 choir members on tour, there were other sounds to enhance each performance—the sounds created by the highly skilled accompanists who nightly provided a musical backdrop for the choir, and the sounds of gifted individual soloists whose artistry bejeweled an already glittering array of musical talent. Accompanying the choir on piano and on organ, where possible, were Tabernacle organists Robert Cundick and John Longhurst. Brother Longhurst also played an organ solo at selected concerts. New to this tour was an electronic synthesizer that was used to duplicate harp, horn, plucked-string bass, and some percussive sounds. It was played principally by new Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott. JoAnn South Ottley, soprano, and Elizabeth Ballantyne Elliott, pianist, performed as soloists. Percussionist Ron Brough, clarinetist Vance Everett, and flutists Kathy Parker and Debra Gehris accompanied the choir. In addition, twenty-five choir members stepped forward to sing solos, duets, or quartets as part of the choir’s performance.
“What a pleasure it is to be one of the musicians who accompany the choir, one of the organists who serve,” says Robert Cundick, senior Tabernacle organist, who is retiring this fall. “I put my ego in the closet years ago. I don’t miss it at all. It is the effectiveness of a team, of people all cooperating together, that makes great music.”