The Orchestra at Temple Square: Lifting Spirits through Music

By Rebecca M. Taylor

Assistant Editor

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    Vesna Gruppman, co-concertmaster of the Orchestra at Temple Square, felt torn. Sitting in the audience at the Salt Lake Tabernacle last September, she longed to join her peers on stage during this, the first concert of their second season. A stubborn arm injury nine months earlier, however, had rendered her temporarily unable to play the violin. Yet as she listened to the strains emanating from the stage, and as she watched the reactions of the people around her, she was grateful for the perspective her vantage point provided. “I could see the wonderful growth of the orchestra,” she says. “And I saw people with tears in their eyes, they were so moved.”

    The Orchestra at Temple Square and its companion, the Temple Square Chorale and Training School, were formed in the fall of 1999 to serve in conjunction with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. With the birth of the new century, Church leaders wanted a professional-caliber orchestra that could support the choir, increase exposure to inspired music, and fill other musical needs of the Church, explains Craig Jessop, director of the Tabernacle Choir.

    In the past year, the 106-member orchestra performed in numerous broadcasts of Music and the Spoken Word with the Tabernacle Choir and staged six concerts on their own, three concerts with the Temple Square Chorale, and two concerts with the Tabernacle Choir, including President Gordon B. Hinckley’s 90th birthday celebration. They also recorded the soundtrack for the Church film Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd, and with the Tabernacle Choir they recorded a Christmas CD, A Mormon Tabernacle Christmas, for the Telarc label.

    At the orchestra’s first rehearsal, 16 October 1999, President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, said, “The vision of the First Presidency is that over time this orchestra could achieve excellence and prestige in national and even worldwide circles.” Brother Jessop believes the desire to achieve musical “excellence and prestige” has been part of the vision of Church leaders since the earliest days of the Church. “Prophets have said that the world would come to Zion and that all good things belong in Zion: art, literature, music, architecture, science,” he says.

    The orchestra is unique in many ways, says Barlow Bradford, director of the orchestra and associate director of the Tabernacle Choir. Professional full-time or freelance musicians often pass up paying opportunities to play in the orchestra. Some university students play alongside their teachers. Two of those teachers, for example, are Vesna Gruppman and her husband, Igor, both of whom are renowned violinists and are on the faculty at Brigham Young University. Brother Gruppman—who serves as co-concertmaster with Vesna—is also concertmaster and associate conductor for the Florida Philharmonic. Yet he says that personal pride is not a factor in the organization, for regardless of background, “we all gather behind the vision of the First Presidency and serve our Heavenly Father through music.”

    What likely sets the orchestra apart more than anything else, members say, is the influence of the Spirit of the Lord. They talk of feeling that influence during rehearsals and performances, of experiencing the unity that comes as orchestra members focus on creating beautiful music through which Heavenly Father can inspire listeners and change hearts. “There’s a spirit there that isn’t in any other organization I’ve ever played in,” remarks coprincipal cellist Julie Newton. “There can be a lot of competition within an orchestra, but there’s none of that here. I think this spiritual element that exists for the participants carries over into the performance.”

    Indeed, strong performances by the orchestra have not gone unnoticed by music critics. A recent performance, for example, was praised as “professional interpreting at its best,” where “passion and beauty were given in copious amounts” (see “Temple Square Orchestra Shines in Opener,” Salt Lake Tribune, 18 Sept. 2000, C5). While orchestra members and leaders enjoy the accolades, they say their ultimate purpose is not to please the critics.

    “My desire with the orchestra is to create the kinds of performances and recordings that enable people to be lifted to greater heights,” says Brother Bradford. “I’m so thoroughly convinced of music being a language of the spirit and a gift from God. We talk in the Church about trying to teach our spirit, to shape it to become like God. And music has the power to help shape the spirit.”

    Linked with the Orchestra at Temple Square is the Temple Square Chorale and Training School, directed by Mack Wilberg with the assistance of Jerold D. and JoAnn Ottley. Rather than being an independent performing organization, the chorale serves as an appendage of the Tabernacle Choir. All prospective members of the Tabernacle Choir, after having passed an audition, must complete a three-month session with the chorale and training school, and all current Tabernacle Choir members must attend a session every three or four years. So far, about half the members of the Tabernacle Choir have participated in the chorale and training school. “We’re reaping the results already in the sight-reading ability of the members of the choir, their intonation, and the flexibility of their vocal styles,” says Brother Jessop. “In every way the choir has improved; we feel that very strongly.”

    Together, the Orchestra at Temple Square, the Temple Square Chorale and Training School, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir all help to preserve not only the cultural heritage of the Church but also the uplifting musical offerings of composers through the ages. Says Brother Jessop, “I think that’s an incredible statement by the Church on the importance of inspired music.”

    More on the Orchestra and Chorale

    For more information about the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Temple Square Chorale and Training School, call 1-801-240-3221.

    A new Christmas CD, A Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas, is available at retail stores.

    Members of the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Temple Square Chorale performed Arthur Honegger’s King David on 13 October. The concert, conducted by Mack Wilberg, was at the Temple Square Assembly Hall. (Photo by Tamra Ratieta.)

    Orchestra members say their goal is to create beautiful music through which Heavenly Father can inspire listeners and change hearts. (Photo by Tamra Ratieta.)