Choir and orchestra play Bethel Woods, site of 1969 Woodstock festival

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: Debra Gehris, IRI
Credit: Debra Gehris, IRI


About a mile from where the Woodstock Music Festival was staged in 1969, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square performed at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts June 27. And just as it happened at the iconic ‘60s festival, rain dampened but did not wash out the choir and orchestra concert.

A daylong drizzle at the venue, deep in the Catskills about 90 miles from New York City, developed into a downpour by the time the concert began about 7:30 p.m. About a third of the 2,500 or so ticket holders did not attend, ostensibly due to the weather.

On a campus of about 2,000 acres, Bethel Woods encompasses the 37-acre farm field on which an estimated 500,000 young people converged Aug. 15-18, 1969, to hear some of the most popular rock music artists of the day. The hippie culture of the era pervaded the event, and drug use was abundant, but Woodstock has been heralded over the years for the atmosphere of mutual good will and respect and the lack of violence among attendees, remarkable in a group that large encamped for so long.

A museum at Bethel Woods tells the story of Woodstock. Greeting the crowd after the opening selections, the choir’s radio and TV announcer Lloyd Newell remarked that he had been to the museum that day and was reminded that it rained at Woodstock, “so somehow it seems appropriate that we have some rain this evening, and I am confident that the music of the choir and orchestra will warm your hearts.”

For this outdoor venue the choir and orchestra performed some of the same selections as at the first two concerts of this Atlantic Coast tour, in Bethesda, Maryland, but the music director Mack Wilberg tailored this lineup for a more casual setting.

Common to both programs are masterworks such as the soaring and majestic “Unfold, Ye Portals” from Charles Gounod’s “The Redemption”; the two African American spirituals featuring the performance of soloist Alex Boyé; cultural selections such as the Nigerian Christmas song "Betelehemu," featuring soloist Laurent Neu.

But the concert also featured a longer set of show tunes including as “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Typically, a prominent figure at a concert venue is chosen to lead the choir and orchestra through its final encore. This time, no guest conductor had been selected, and there was no one to receive the standard souvenir baton.

During informal lunchtime socializing, choir officers decided to offer the privilege to Elder Larry Y. Wilson of the Seventy, who is a presiding General Authority on the choir’s tour.

Elder Wilson, a pianist and organist with a musician’s heart, did not hesitate to accept the honor. Some performers reported seeing him clench his fists and grin with glee after mounting the podium to direct them in “This Land Is Your Land.”

After the song, he applauded the choir and orchestra in appreciation and admiration.

Reflecting on the experience, Elder Wilson told the Church News, “For many years, my dream has been to be a conductor of a symphony orchestra. By background, I play the piano; I’m more of an instrumentalist than a vocalist, but I have a new dream, which is the orchestra combined with the chorus, after last night.

He added, “It’s really an overpowering experience to be up there, because you realize that the level of musicianship represented by the orchestra and chorus is so far beyond where I am as a musician. And to be invited to be the guest conductor with a group like that was really an overpowering experience.

“I guess the closest analogy to it I could come up with would be suddenly being admitted into the presence of the Savior, and you realize you are way down here and He is way up there.

“It was really the thrill of a lifetime.”

Choir leaders and staff experienced a heartwarming experience in connection with this concert involving a young fan.

Zak Breese, 25, who has developmental issues requiring special education, lives with his parents, Dave and Judy, in Walton, about an 80-minute drive from Bethel.

After they adopted Zak, who was born in South Korea, they found that at age 2, he was able to navigate the Internet. There, he found the sacred music genre, which, in turn, led him to the music of the choir and orchestra.

From Facebook, they learned that the choir and orchestra would be performing in Bethel. They asked their son if he would be interested in hearing the groups perform live; he jumped at the chance.

Both special education teachers, the couple said the music of the choir has added a dimension to the lives of them and their son, and they have found in it a way to connect more deeply with him.

“The music that comes from the choir touches him in ways that nothing else does,” Mrs. Breese said. “So it gives us access to Zak that we would not ordinarily have. It enriches our relationship with Zak by just being able to reach him more deeply through something that touches him so deeply.

Arrangements were made for the Breeses to attend the concert sound check in addition to the concert and to record an interview for placement on the Choir’s website.

He told Tabernacle Choir general manager Scott Barrick that he is not just a fan, he is the fan.

Prior to the concert, choir officers toured the museum at Bethel Woods and met Duke Devlin, an attendee of the Woodstock festival in 1969.

At age 26, he hitchhiked with a friend from Texas to the festival site.

Afterward, he stayed on. He landed a job at a dairy farm hoping to make enough money to get out of town. But he married a local girl and made his home in the area. Today, the bewhiskered 72-year-old is a site interpreter at Bethel Woods, supplementing his encyclopedic knowledge of Woodstock with personal memories and impressions.

Did he ever think the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would perform on the premises?

“I had never heard of them,” he said. “If I did, I probably wouldn’t be too interested back then. But today, I’m more mature and I understand. Just like when we opened up here the very first time, we had the New York Philharmonic. They gave me a very nice seat, a primo seat, I thought, ‘Do I have to sit through this?’ Well, as soon as they struck up the band — and that was the first song they came up with, ‘Strike Up the Band’ — I was thrilled by them. Which I’m looking forward to tonight.”

Museum director Wade Lawrence said of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square appearance, “Woodstock was about expression, and what’s more expressive than a several-hundred-person chorus singing what they feel inside? That’s what music is about, that’s what creativity is about. I couldn’t be happier.”

He said he overheard someone say the performance would have even greater force than the music at Woodstock. “In other words, I have a feeling it’s going to be one gigantic wall of sound, it’ll be heavenly music and it will blow us away.

“That sounds like Woodstock to me!”

Apparently, powerful, heavenly music is what the audience heard and felt.

In an email message to Lauren Smith, a violinist with the orchestra, Judy Breese wrote:

“Yesterday and last evening were irreplaceable experiences for the three of us. I watched in tears, most of the time, throughout your performance; many others around me did the same. We may have been small in number, but I truly hope the choir felt the great love and warmth from those of us who were there. As we were leaving, we kept hearing audience members express their appreciation for the announcer's good humor, and the orchestra members' forbearance under such adverse conditions. Cold, damp instruments, freezing fingers, and wet, flying sheet music were surely not part of their plan, but they dealt with all of it so gracefully. I even saw a bassist smiling — oh my!”

The Bethel Woods performance was the second stop on the choir’s two-week Atlantic Coast tour, which continues this week in Saratoga Springs, Yankee Stadium, Carnegie Hall, and ends July 6 in the Wang Theater in Boston.

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