Choir tour touches lives

Bright, high-energy nine-concert trip ends with accolades, happy fans

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Musicians on a mission.

That's the best description of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and members of the Orchestra at Temple Square. From June 21 through July 3, their mission field was in one Canadian province and four U.S. states.

As is the case with many missionary endeavors, the musicians found their labors challenging and exhausting, but extremely rewarding.

Their tour got off to a rigorous start, calling for four concerts within 24 hours — a performance schedule few other groups would even consider. On three charter planes, they left Salt Lake City on June 21, arriving in Toronto, Ontario, that afternoon. On June 22, they performed matinee and evening concerts in Roy Thomson Hall. About 11 p.m., following the last concert in Toronto, they boarded 11 buses and traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., with some buses arriving between 1-2:30 a.m.

As many missionaries know, the importance of the work takes precedence over the need for relaxation. Choir members had eaten breakfast and boarded buses by 9 a.m. and were on their way to Chautauqua Institution in the southwestern corner of New York, where they performed matinee and evening concerts June 23. There was no time to bask in the glow of warm audience response: they boarded buses at 10:30 p.m. and arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, around 2 a.m.

People along the tour route, especially those experienced with staging musical performances, expressed amazement at the rigorous schedule and the "brightness" of the choir and orchestra despite their long travels by bus and little sleep. Many commented about how well-rested they looked, how involved they were with their music.

"They just sparkle," said Jean Browne of Amherst, N.Y. Rose Mary Chamay of Fort Erie, Ontario, said they were "absolutely wonderful." And added Floyd Burp of Amherst: "Very professional."

On day four of the tour, Sunday, June 24, the singers and instrumentalists had sacrament meeting in their hotel in Cleveland, with Elder W. Craig Zwick of the Seventy presiding. The group then traveled about 20 miles northeast of Cleveland to visit Kirtland, Ohio, which was headquarters of the Church from 1831-1838. (Please see Church News report, June 30.)

On June 25, the choir and orchestra performed at Blossom Festival at Cuyahoga Falls, near Cleveland. And, as missionaries are encouraged to do from time to time, members of the choir and orchestra enjoyed a diversion along their missionary journey: they boarded the Cuyahoga Scenic Railroad Train for a ride through the Cuyahoga National Park en route to that evening's concert.

Most missionaries are transferred from one area of their mission to another every few months. But these musical missionaries transferred nearly every day. On June 26, they moved on to Chicago in preparation for performing at Ravinia Festival the next evening.

Nearly every missionary returns home with at least one "awesome" experience to share with family and friends. For many on the choir's tour, Ravinia provided some of the highlights. First, the audience broke attendance records for a classical music concert. The covered amphitheater was filled, and several thousand watched the concert from the lawn. Some 10,000 people attended that concert.

Another highlight came at the end of the concert. For an encore number, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago's Catholic Diocese, stepped on the conductor's podium and led the choir and orchestra in a version of "This Land Is Your Land" modified to include Chicago-area landmarks.

After the success at Ravinia came the concert at Cincinnati's Riverbend Music Center on June 29. Except for some percussionists, members of the orchestra had the evening off since the choir performed with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, whose noted conductor Erich Kunzel shared directing duties with the Tabernacle Choir's musical director, Craig Jessop, and associate director, Mack Wilberg. Mr. Kunzel, a 2006 National Medal of Arts recipient, referred to the Tabernacle Choir as "the most magnificent choir in all the world." (Please see page 8 for more details about the concert with the Cincinnati Pops.)

On June 30, the musicians traveled to Nashville, Tenn. They arrived at their hotel around 2 p.m., then walked a short distance to the concert venue for a sound check at 3 p.m., and then performed at 7:30 p.m. By any missionary's calendar, it was a busy day. Most important, it was a successful venture. The audience cheered, applauded, whooped and hollered, begging for more when the concert ended. An encore number was Brother Wilberg's arrangement of "Amazing Grace." Many in the audience seemed almost transported. Donald and Carolyn Parrish, sitting close to the front, wept during the hymn that is so beloved, especially in the southern United States. "Bless you!" Brother Parrish called out as the hymn ended.

Another Sunday rolled around, and June gave way to July. Again, the tour group met in a hotel for sacrament meeting, this one presided over by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy, who has responsibility for the North America Southeast Area.

After the meeting, the group traveled to Memphis, Tenn. For once, the choir had a chance to be on the receiving end of an emotional roller coaster. After dinner, the choir and orchestra members filled their hotel's lobby and balconies to sing for a special guest, Chase Burch, a 10-year-old Primary girl from the Visalia California Stake who had come to Tennessee to be treated for brain cancer at St. Jude Children's Hospital. Wearing hospital I.D. bracelets and a protective mask, Chase came to the hotel with her parents, Jared and Season Burch, and her little sister, Brooklyn, 2.

A family member in California told Peggy Cann, a choir member, about Chase. Her brother, Keith Brimhall, contacted Brother and Sister Burch and said that "a few choir members" might be able to sing for Chase.

Brother and Sister Burch said they were overwhelmed when they entered the hotel lobby and saw the entire choir waiting to give their daughter an impromptu concert.

The Choir sang, "A Child's Prayer," "Over the Rainbow," "The Battle of Jericho," "I Am a Child of God," and "God Be with You."

Tissues were passed around, and were much in need. Some choir members sang with tears streaming down their faces and many choked on words while a few stoically held their emotions in check until Chase and her parents left the hotel. Then they wept.

As she reached the hotel's front door, the little girl had a parting message for the choir: "Tell them that I love them."

Her mother later posted comments on the girl's Web site that they felt the choir was inspired to sing "A Child's Prayer," because "it is Chase's very favorite Primary song, which her Dad sang to her while she was under anesthesia for her surgery and that she woke up later singing to us.

"When they started singing this very song, we all had tears running down our cheeks, as we were certain that our Father in Heaven really does know us personally and is truly there for us during our deepest trials."

The concert tour concluded with a performance July 2 in the FedEx Forum in Memphis. Long and loud applause filled the arena as the concert concluded.

"The choir is superb, offering a good variety of music. I'm happy that they came to Memphis to give us a chance to enjoy them," said audience member Mary J. Cooper.

Craig Jessop, the choir's music director, said that through the decades the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been an instrument in the hands of the Lord and, in behalf of the Church, an ambassador in building bridges and making friends, dispelling prejudices and providing a forum for people "to come and partake of the beauty of the music and the Spirit of the Lord."

The choir's first tour, he said, was in 1893, when it traveled to Chicago. "And now, in the year 2007, the choir is continuing to fulfill its divine destiny in reaching out, making friends and bringing the Spirit of the Lord into these concert halls."

Mac Christensen, president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, said, "This tour has touched hearts of people, members and non-members. It has touched people at hotels and along our route as well as at concerts. Wherever the choir has been, we've had missionary experiences. The Spirit was so strong. People have had tears in their eyes. There has been no doubt Heavenly Father was in charge. The tour of 2007 will go down as one of the greatest missionary tools."

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