Great challenges bring choir's greatest effort: intricate, difficult music pleases 'tough' concert audiences

"This is where Zion meets Zion," said director Jerold Ottley shortly after the Tabernacle Choir arrived in Jerusalem. The singers sat in the auditorium of Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, which features walls of glass, looking out from Mount Scopus over the Kidron Valley at the Holy City's skyline.

The panoramic view, one of many seen in the Holy Land, made a deep impression on the singers. And, according to newspaper reports and comments by leaders in the country's music community, the singers made a deep impression on the Holy Land during its history-making concert tour Dec. 26-Jan. 6. On their first tour to the Holy Land and performing six concerts in sold-out and standing-room-only halls, choir members rose to their biggest musical challenge. They not only met it, but they met it very well, according to their director.Brother Ottley noted that the nature of the vocal literature on the concert tour was such that "it required more vocal prowess, more vocal stamina than anything we have ever done, both in terms of its preparation before we left home and in the actual fulfillment of it in the concerts while we were in Israel.

"In the 18 years I've been associated with the choir in a conductor's capacity, I don't think I've seen the choir members make a more total concentrated - and consecrated - effort than they did on this tour. I have not only the deepest admiration but also unlimited gratitude for the effort they made. I thank them not only for their great work, but also for their commitment, which seems unending.

"From a musical point of view, I'm not sure this choir will ever be quite the same because its members have reached a level of appreciation in terms of what is available in music that I don't think the choir has ever had before. The choir's basic responsibility is the weekly `Music and Spoken Word' broadcast, which is a series of three-minute anthems and hymns, relatively signable music. They never had to stretch to a major work like they did on this tour."

The major work referred to was Hector Berlioz' "Requiem," known in music circles as a particularly difficult piece. The choir performed it twice with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in concerts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. For those concerts, Brother Ottley and associate director Donald Ripplinger relinquished directing duties to David Shallon, conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony.

Brother Ottley, at the tour's end, admitted he had some uneasiness in the early moments of turning the choir over to another director, and the symphony's director some concern whether an amateur choir - famed though it may be - was capable of performing such an intricate piece of music for Israel's sophisticated audiences. After the first rehearsal, both conductors relaxed. The choir had proven itself.

The choir had more than just "Requiem" in which to show its measure of musical expertise. "In our own concerts without the orchestra, our sponsors [the management of the Jerusalem Symphony OrchestraT were very concerned about us doing bona fide choral literature that the audiences would know and understand," Brother Ottley said. "That meant we had to go into some deeper repertoire than we normally would do, which included some Russian and German pieces. Those all lent to the vocal difficulty we were facing."

While the choir's directors and singers might have felt they faced musical difficulty, they made their work look easy, as reflected in one critic's comment that the choir "was not challenged." That, according to Brother Ottley, was the ultimate compliment.

At every performance, the choir received prolonged applause from appreciative audiences. Regarding its reception, Brother Ottley said: "I was relieved and overwhelmed because we had been warned that the Israelis are a tough concert audience. They hear the best there is in the world. They have been schooled, and for years and years they have had the finest recordings in almost every home. This is not just something that happens to a portion of the country. It's very widespread. And then their broadcasting institutions have kept up a very high level of musical appreciation. We knew we had to be in top form in order to appeal to them."

The choir received newspaper reviews written in superlatives of praise. (See Church News Jan. 2 and Jan. 9.)

While acknowledging that choir members had prepared very well, worked extremely hard and rehearsed extra long hours, Brother Ottley said all the credit for the choir's success did not rest solely with the choir. "We heard singing on this tour that is incomparable to any that I've ever been associated with, and I fully believe we had angelic help from time to time because we were incapable of doing all that was done," he said.

"The beauty of it was in a refined sort of way, and also in a communicative sort of way. The choir just sort of reached out and engulfed its audiences, which has always been its great strength, but it seemed to be even more powerful this time around."



During videotaping of a television documentary on hillside overlooking Jerusalem, Jerold Ottley directs Tabernacle Choir in singing `How Great Thou Art.'

En route to concert in Tel Aviv, choir members spend a few minutes visiting nearby Jaffa, an ancient Mediterranean port city.

Tabernacle Choir members gather at Garden Tomb as a guide welcomes them to the area many Christians accept as the grave from which the resurrected Savior arose.

Emotions overcome Joyce Scott Durrant at the Garden Tomb as she sings "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," a hymn featured in a documentary about the choir in Israel.

During choir's visit to the Garden Tomb, one of the singers, John Goodman spends a few minutes alone.

Near Bethlehem, the Tabernacle Choir sings during the taping of a television documentary in Shepherd's Field, believed to be where angelic hosts announced the Savior's birth.

Wendell M. Smoot, choir president, said the singers undertook the tour to the Holy Land as musical ambassadors of goodwill, embarking on an artistic exchange among cultures. He said the Church has made commitments to the Israeli government that those associated with BYU's Jerusalem center, as students or visitors, will not proselyte among citizens in Israel. In the spirit of friendship and goodwill, choir members voluntarily signed contracts stating they would not proselyte while in Israel.

"The Brethren made it clear that the Church itself has made these commitments to the Israeli government, and we intended to live up to the entire letter of that agreement," Pres. Smoot said. "I feel we have done that, and done it in a very admirable way. We came on this tour in the spirit of friendship. We have not done it in the spirit of proselytizing in any shape or form."

On other tours, choir members usually distribute Articles of Faith cards and recordings featuring religious music, particularly LDS hymns. On this tour, however, choir members handed out cards on which were printed a brief history of the choir, and the recordings they gave to new-found friends in the Holy Land contained non-religious music.

No contract, however, could prohibit the communicating of spirit to spirit and the goodwill such communication engendered. On numerous occasions, Israeli audiences shed tears of delight and deep emotion as the choir sang. Two numbers to which they responded particularly were "Jerusalem, City of Gold," and "By the Waters of Babylon." Audiences first burst into spontaneous applause during the first few measures and then settled in quietness bordering on reverence each time the choir sang in Hebrew "Jerusalem, City of Gold." Its composer, Noemi Shemer, attended two concerts and paid a surprise visit to the choir after its final performance in Jerusalem Jan. 4. After she related the history of the song and how she was inspired to write its lyrics, she told choir members, "Now you are part of the story."

Not only were audiences moved by the choir's performances, but choir members also were touched. One singer, Mary Ellen Brown, related:

"For many years, I have had strong feelings for the Jewish heritage, and wished that I could claim it as mine, but my strongly Welsh and Scandinavian background gave me little expectation. Then, in doing genealogy a few months ago, I came upon a name that seemed possibly to be Jewish, and I questioned a good friend of mine who is well versed in genealogical research. She also felt this could be a Jewish name.

"When we learned that we were going as a choir to Israel, I felt even more that I wanted to have a Jewish line of ancestry. On our visit in Tel Aviv to the Diaspora Museum, I learned we could look up names for historical and genealogical research right there, and was very pleased to find my great-great-great (etc.) grandmother was indeed of Judah! The same evening we sang a concert to a large and wonderfully receptive audience. As we began to sing `By the Waters of Babylon' - a song relating to the longing of the captive Israelite people for their home - I realized that this was not only the heritage of those I sang to, it was mine to claim too!

"My ancestors were also carried out from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and longed to see Zion again. And the next number, "Come, Come, Ye Saints," is mine as well, as I have genealogical lines tracing back to the roots of the Restoration. As I realized that I belong to the Old Jerusalem, so I belong to the New Jerusalem, and I could not sing for the feelings of happiness and fellowship and love for the audience we sang to."

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed