There seems to be no end to the stories—the stories of a lifetime that Mormon Tabernacle Choir members tell of their three-week concert tour through middle Europe and Russia in June 1991—a short time before the stunning late-summer developments in the U.S.S.R.
There was the older man outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater—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 twenty-six-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 St. Petersburg (then known as 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, they would speak through tears, long, warm handclasps, and soulful expressions of “thank you” indigenous to each language and nation.
To see the great twenty-two-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 interactions 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 kinds 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 by 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 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 St. Petersburg 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 choir member 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—affected 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 St. Petersburg, 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. They provided 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 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 St. Petersburg 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 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 St. Petersburg. 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 last year was 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 he was the one I was looking for. 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.”
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.”
“We have a distant relative in Warsaw and so we informed him of the choir’s coming,” said Charlene VanWagenen 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 wife’s 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.”
“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.”
“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 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 St. Petersburg 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 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 of 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.”