“A Company of Angels”


A report of the Tabernacle Choir’s recent European concert tour

A sampling of media reports may say all that needs to be said:

  • “A company of angels appeared in the Auditorium in Via della Concilianzione. … It was both a fiery success and a night of peace. Come back, come back, sweet angels from the Great Salt Lake,” L’Unita Due, Rome, Italy.

  • “An explosion of voices, of uncontainable joy—truly spectacular,” La Stampa, Turin, Italy.

  • “The music—choice! the beautiful voices, the discipline, and the spirit! And there was peace. We could see it in the faces of the singers. … One could hear it in the voices, the hymns, and the songs. That concert was very special. It was like a beautiful gift,” Radio 3-VRT, Brussels, Belgium.

  • “The Mormon Choir … makes God its most powerful instrument,” Le Temps, Geneva, Switzerland.

  • “It is something fantastic,” RDP–1 (Radio Portugal), Lisbon, Portugal.

Such are some of the expressions openly and buoyantly voiced concerning the 21-day tour from 12 June to 2 July of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to nine major cities in seven European countries. In order of concert stops and three Music and the Spoken Word broadcasts, the cities were London, England; Brussels, Belgium; Geneva, Switzerland; Turin and Rome, Italy; Marseille, France; Barcelona and Madrid, Spain; and Lisbon, Portugal.

“In October 1995,” said Tabernacle Choir president Wendell M. Smoot, “it was suggested that it was again time for the choir to go to the lands of Europe and raise their voices in praise to the Lord. Our goal was to make friends with the people and raise the level of acceptance of the Church and its members in countries we visited.” Reflecting on that, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Europe West Area President, said, “The Church’s growth here in the next century will be built on the results of these concerts.”

One month preceding the tour, President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, met with the choir and said that the work of the Church in Europe needed a spark. He told the choir that their singing would be at its “finest and best” if they were in tune with the Spirit of the Lord. “Through your music, you will be able to rise above the physical into the spiritual. You will be watched over and kept, and angels will attend you and be with you.”

And thus began the 21-day odyssey and four great constants:

First, there was a barrage of print and electronic media attention on the choir and its members the moment they arrived in a city until the hour they left, bringing with it “more coverage for the Church in Europe” than anyone can remember, said Elder Gene R. Cook of the Europe West Area Presidency.

Second, there were the concerts with their inevitable outpouring of the Spirit and the audience’s emotion and respect and joy.

• “We started with a sacred anthem—a significant piece of music representing each culture, a composer they recognized and knew of,” said Tabernacle Choir director Jerold D. Ottley. “That is, in London we sang some well-known British sacred anthems; in Brussels we did a beautiful piece by a Flemish composer; in Geneva we sang a Swiss composer’s piece; in Italy we did Victoria and Puccini; in Spain we sang a fine piece by a contemporary composer, and so forth. Then we sang the major liturgical—you might say heavy—piece of the concert, Puccini’s “Gloria” from Messi di Gloria or Martin’s “Sanctus” from Messe, for example. Then we moved into oratorio, cantata, and hymn literature, which was the final statement of the concert’s first half.

“The first half was very Christ-centered,” he continued. “Included in the hymn group everywhere was ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints,’ which we sang in the language of each country. It was extremely well received and is known among many people as the ‘Mormon’ anthem.

“Following intermission, the second half began with either an organ solo or another serious piece of music. Then we went into lighter material—some spirituals, entertaining folk songs like ‘The Battle of Jericho,’ ‘At the River,’ ‘Lida Rose,’ or ‘Down by the Riverside.’

“All this led toward the finale on Gershwin, which lasted about 10 minutes. This is the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s birth, and he is extremely well known and appreciated in Europe and other parts of the world. That was always a high note on which to close the concert.

“There were always encores, and for our first encore we offered a quiet little surprise, singing ‘I Am a Child of God’ in the language of each country. It left a significant message and was extremely well received. Somewhere in the encores every audience wants to hear ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ Then we end with our signature closure, ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again.’”

• “The audience stands in applause, sometimes shouting. The applause sometimes joins in one full-house unison clap pattern. Then the waving begins! Many wave long white handkerchiefs high over their head and throw kisses in between wiping tears from their faces. As I join the choir in waving back, there is an incredible bond,” said choir member Suzanne J. Tate.

• “After the Madrid concert we mingled with the audience, and I have never stood in so many photos and signed so many programs in my nine years in the choir!” said choir member Debra Hatch.

• “It is a singular joy to make music that moves audiences to tears and thunderous ovations. I think what is happening is that for many it is the first time perhaps they have felt the ‘swelling motions’ of the Spirit within their breasts [Alma 32:28]. The choir is like a giant plow that softens the soil of the heart so that the seed of truth can be planted and begin to grow,” said choir member Jon D. Green.

The third constant of the tour was the VIP receptions, wherein invited guests were able to meet some choir leaders, members, and local Church leaders,building a bridge within each community with Latter-day Saints living there.

• “In the reception following the Brussels concert I talked with the head of a very significant government office,” said Brother Smoot. “‘You know,’ the person said, ‘we’ve never really understood your people. For that reason we’ve not always classified you as a mainstream religion. But you’ve given us a whole new appreciation for what “Mormon” means. In terms of your concert and its themes tonight, it was absolutely magnificent. And if the songs you sang are the things you believe, then we know who you are.’”

• After the choir’s concert and reception in Geneva, a prominent Swiss musician and broadcaster wrote to some 300 media reporters saying that it was discipline and high moral values that made the choir so successful.

• In such settings, there is always “an outpouring of admiration and appreciation for the Church and its choir,” said Lloyd D. Newell, choir commentator.

• “A major governmental figure told me of his deep respect and admiration for our young LDS missionaries. He told me the good they do for struggling youth is inspiring. They provide good role models and teach the importance of a good education and faith in God. They give hope, and youth love to associate with them,” said choir member Robert P. Whitehead.

The fourth great constant of the tour was the enormous number of individual missionary-oriented and member-sustaining encounters that choir members had during their entire concert tour.

• “We took over 21,000 bifold Articles of Faith cards with information on them about the Church, the family, and the choir. We took over 10,000 CDs and cassette tapes of choir recordings,” said choir support staff member Stephen T. Case. “These are all purchased by choir members as part of their individual missionary responsibility. They and their spouses seek to be individually guided in handing out about seven cards and four cassettes in each city. Dozens of touching stories unfold every concert night. And in it all, choir members obtain great numbers of referrals for the missionaries.”

• “After London’s Royal Albert Hall concert, I met a Jamaican who praised the choir’s singing of the black spirituals. ‘Let me give you a tape of the choir if you would like,’” said Lori Spencer, spouse of a choir member. “He kissed me on both cheeks and effusively said it was ‘the best gift’ he had ever received!”

• “After the Marseille concert in a visit with a woman, she asked me, ‘Can I get the words to your music?’ She wanted to teach her children some of the songs. I said I would write and send her what she wanted,” said choir member Kathleen Wallace.

• A day or so following the Barcelona concert a fairly rough-looking teen with long hair and multiple earrings, one who had many times before made fun of the missionaries, called out to some elders, “Oh, you’re the ones with the big choir. Tell me about these Mormons.”

• Choir members’ missionary opportunities were everywhere. On the boat going to several different concert stops one of many waiters who asked about the Church said, “Other people on cruises have dull eyes and glazed expressions. But people on this cruise have eyes that look into their souls.”

But as important as missionary experiences are, equally important is the undeniable boost given to Church members in cities where the choir goes, infusing “large doses of spiritual adrenaline,” said choir member Kathleen J. Allred. Another choir member said, “It pumps them up; they just beam.” For many members it “revives their spirits and allows them to know they are not alone, that they have the love and support of the Church worldwide,” said choir member Bonita L. Cross. These members often bring an electricity, a pride, and an excitement to the concerts that helps open the floodgates of feelings in others.

• “I watched a boy about 14 years old during the Lisbon concert—probably a member. He was standing and applauding with tears streaming down his face, showing a kind of deep emotion in public that isn’t typical for 14-year-olds,” said choir member Dorian M. Hatch.

• “Before tonight I was reluctant to tell anyone I am a Mormon,” said a young member after one of the concerts in Spain. “Now I want to tell everyone I belong to the church from which the Mormon Tabernacle Choir comes.”

• “After our concert in Brussels, I met with a sister who had driven a very long way to attend the concert. With tears in her eyes she thanked us and said through an interpreter that she would be returning home buoyed up to tell others about the Church,” said a choir member.

• “The opportunity to attend a presentation of this magnificent choir is received as a blessing directly from the Lord straight to our heads,” said a Portuguese Church member reverently.

Thus each concert’s individual story, each city’s unique highlights are played out against this mosaic of media attention—even media fever at times—and concert performances, VIP receptions, missionary encounters, and member bolstering. Each city is its own chapter, each tour its own book.

Some of 1998’s European tour highlights:

• Tears coursed down the faces of many at London’s Royal Albert Hall at the tour’s beginning, where an extremely emotional audience joined with the choir in singing an encore number, “Jerusalem,” a deeply loved British hymn referring to the legend that Christ came to Cornwall and Somerset as a youth. “The hall seemed to be lifted,” said choir member Kathleen L. Mickelsen as they sang, “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? … O clouds unfold! bring me my Chariot of Fire! I will not cease from mental fight; nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”

• In Brussels some 40 choir members performed a private concert at the home of Alan John Blinken, U.S. ambassador to Belgium, before a small audience of internationally and nationally significant VIPs. Choir members were received with such feeling that those present called it historic in its impact. Brussels is the unofficial diplomatic capital of Europe, home of the European Parliament and European Union, and NATO headquarters.

• In Rome the unyielding determination of choir members and the revitalizing power of the Spirit infused a very weary choir following a day of peculiar difficulties and lifted them to one of their most stunning and brilliant performances (see “They Came Back with Fire in Their Eyes!” story, page 33).

• In Marseille, concert promotion had somehow not gone well, but members and missionaries worked with a faith and energy heroic in stature. “Two weeks before the concert only a little over 100 tickets had been sold,” said Brother Smoot. “There was even talk of canceling the concert. Well, placards and posters were printed by the hundreds. Three-foot-high bright posters of the choir were on every kiosk in the city. Handbills by the thousands were printed. Sister missionaries asked a priest at Marseille’s Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Cathedral if they could put up some posters there. ‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, ‘I know the LDS people. They are good.’ I think only 100 seats of the 2,000 in the hall were not filled as we began the concert. I call it the ‘miracle of Marseille.’” An LDS bishop said the night turned into the “rebirth of the Church in Marseille.”

• In Madrid, said a choir member, “the concert was among the highlights of my years of singing. Honestly, the hall was on fire with the spirit of testimony.”

• At Spain’s El Escorial, a royal complex some 30 miles outside of Madrid where many Spanish kings are buried, the choir performed stunningly before a VIP private audience in a concert said to be “monumental” for the Church’s stature in Spain.

• In Lisbon, before the concert, an official called one of the support personnel to a window two flights above the street and said, “Come and look at the street below. You’ve got a success on your hands.” The street was wall-to-wall people, many of them calling out for tickets long since gone.

Commenting on the choir’s tour, Elder Uchtdorf said, “The choir has realized every goal we hoped for—and more!” His wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, insightfully observed, “The Tabernacle Choir is the musical bridge from mortality to eternity.”

It is so because, above all else, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the Lord’s choir.

Assisting reportorially were June H. Allred, Kathleen J. Allred, Trudy L. Barnes, Stephen T. Case, Bonita L. Cross, Joan S. Evans, Jon D. Green, Debra Hatch, Kathleen L. Mickelsen, Colleen E. Newman, Suzanne J. Tate, and Robert P. Whitehead.

“They Came Back with Fire in Their Eyes!”

The concert in Rome at the Vatican’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia came after an extraordinarily challenging day. The port where our boat docked was an hour and a half by bus away from the city. We bussed in early, and then the weather became extremely hot. By afternoon, the choir was truly tired. Unusual circumstances left them with little to eat. After a day of walking to see the great sights of the Vatican, the choir had nothing to do but sit in the hot halls and stairwells of the concert hall. Water and places to rest were at a premium for 300 choir members plus their companions.

I went to the concert hall for rehearsal with a great deal of foreboding, wondering if the choir would have enough energy to do well in an atmosphere where the finest musicians in the world perform and where high quality musical execution is expected.

I just cannot tell you nor describe the concerned spirit I felt when the choir began to slowly gather for rehearsal, yet choir members simply said, “We will do it!” They then rested in the heat as best they could throughout the building.

When the concert hour arrived, I tell you, they came back with fire in their eyes! They sang a marvelous concert! The Spirit of the Lord came upon them and gave them their reserve, because most of them were running on empty. I just can’t pay them enough tribute for their sense of mission against those kinds of odds.

From an artistic point of view, this tour was probably the most successful tour we’ve ever had; from the point of view of consistency of performance, it was as high as I’ve ever experienced with the choir from one venue to another.Jerold D. Ottley, Tabernacle Choir director

“I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It in 20 Years”

In my support role for the choir of trying to interest radio and television broadcasters to either broadcast the Tabernacle Choir concerts live or film them for later use, we can say that this 1998 European tour exceeded—simply exceeded—all our expectations! I knew it was going to be exciting, but I just couldn’t believe what happened. You have to know that European journalists, reporters, radio-television producers, and media executives are very sophisticated broadcasting-wise. They have the whole world of the arts to choose from. They are people who, in the vernacular, have seen it all, been there, done that. Yet in city after city, country after country, the choir’s concerts were given major treatment. You just have to say that the Spirit of Heavenly Father rested over media people in the most profound, incredible way. I’ve never seen anything like it in 20 years.

From London to Lisbon it was the almost unending media spinoffs that took everything to new heights, thanks to the great support given by the Church’s excellent European public affairs personnel. You had news teams out filming the first choir members off the plane or bus or boat; you had interviews everywhere; you had documentary teams getting segments for upcoming works; you had live concerts being broadcast on radio or television or both; and everywhere film crews were getting their coverage for major presentations that have already been aired or are scheduled to air this fall. We were on the six o’clock news, the ten o’clock news, then the morning news.

There were cameras at our hotels and at the concert halls. They filmed everything and everyone they found of interest. And their questions weren’t just the simple variety, like “How many people are there in the choir?” They were questions like, “What makes you sing like this? What motivates you? What do you believe? What is the doctrine of your church?” It was stunning.

The actual visit of the choir to a city was a media event in and of itself, an event with its own fever, irrespective of the concert experience that was, of course, simply heavenly in its power and spirit and influence.

But in a sense the concerts themselves are just the prelude. The whole opera is yet to come. The contracts and agreements we’ve signed give broadcasters unlimited use of the material. It’s theirs for however long they want to use it, whenever they want to use it, and in whatever capacity. They will run—the concerts and their documentaries—widely for a year at least. But these things are used again and again. Take Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, our television special of 18 years ago. It’s still airing in countries around the world. Every Christmas. And the amazing thing about European electronic media is that it transcends borders in Europe. You can sit in your home in Rome and click on the BBC in London. Everybody surfs through and picks up programs over and over again from other European nations.

But it was the emotion of it all with media people that I will remember. There was fire there—everywhere! In their souls and hearts. At the end of a city’s visit, I’ve never been kissed so much, hugged so much by professional associates. Talk about coming out of obscurity! Undeniably it was the Spirit of Heavenly Father that did it all.Iain B. McKay, director of international media, Bonneville Communications

“It’s Like Moving a Medium-Sized Town”

Taking the Tabernacle Choir anywhere is a mammoth undertaking. It is a logistical nightmare. The actual choir and necessary other personnel number about 350 individuals. When tours come up, spouses of Choir members are invited to accompany as guests if they wish to pay their own way. That balloons the numbers up another 350. So when we travel it’s like moving a medium-sized town of 700 people. Keeping track of up to 1,700 pieces of luggage alone and feeding everyone daily is a tremendous thing. On this recent tour we used nearly every type of transportation—chartered air travel to and from Europe; chartered train under the English Channel to France; buses on land; and at Genoa, Italy, we boarded a chartered ship that took us to our next three stops—Rome, Marseille, and Barcelona.Wendell M. Smoot, Tabernacle Choir president

[photos] The choir in concert at Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica. (Background photo by David Newman.) Inset, above: Woman at Barcelona concert. (Photo by Debra Gehris.)

[photo] Scene of choir and a portion of the audience at London’s Royal Albert Hall. (Photo by Pacita Castillo.)

[photo] Closeup of audience at a concert’s finale. (Photo by Warren Tate.)

[photo] At the Vatican’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. (Photo by David Newman.)

[photo] Choir director Jerold D. Ottley signals the choir’s reception of applause at Victoria Hall in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo by Debra Gehris.)

[photo] Choir member Diane Burton shares choir tapes with eager youth in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Sara Horrocks.)

[photo] Choir member David Gehris in TV interview, Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Debra Gehris.)

[photos] Right: Choir member Rita Felt stands by poster announcing Vatican concert. (Photo by Debra Gehris.) Further right: Tabernacle Choir in recital at the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid, Spain. (Photo by David Newman.)

[photo] Encore calls of “bravo” and “fantastico.” (Photo by David Newman.)

[photo] Choir members and companions at El Escorial, the royal complex near Madrid where many Spanish kings are buried. (Photo by David Newman.)