Tabernacle Choir returns to Carnegie Hall for two performances

Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI
Credit: Debra Gheris , IRI


Tchaikovsky played there when it opened in 1891, and in its 125 seasons, Carnegie Hall has hosted many legends of the performing arts: Vladimir Horowitz, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Julie Andrews, Arturo Toscanini, Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan and Tony Bennett, to name a few.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is part of that stellar assortment, having played Carnegie Hall three times now, the latest occasion being two concerts July 1 and 2, with its sister group, the Orchestra at Temple Square. The concerts were part of the two-week Atlantic Coast tour for the choir and orchestra, which concludes next week with an appearance at the Wang Theater in Boston, Massachusetts.

“We’ve been to New York City six different times; three of those times were at Carnegie Hall,” said the choir’s announcer, Lloyd Newell, who mentioned that the choir’s first appearance in New York City was in 1911.

Brother Newell said that 1911 appearance was in connection with the American Land and Irrigation Exposition. “They came to New York City. They were here for 10 days and performed three concerts daily at Madison Square Garden. … The choir did 50 concerts and traveled more than 5,000 miles on that tour.

“I tell you that for your interest and also for the choir and orchestra to know that they had it much busier in 1911.”

In 1958, the choir performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy and also performed on Ed Sullivan’s nationwide television variety show broadcast from New York City, Brother Newell said.

The choir returned in 1967 and again in 1976 for the United States Bicentennial, Brother Newell said, "almost 40 years. I think it's about time we came back to Carnegie Hall."

The last time the choir was in New York City was in 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.

The choir and orchestra performed the concert set prepared for the indoor venues of this tour by music director Mack Wilberg, focusing largely on classical masterworks and presented continuously in the first half, intended to be uninterrupted by applause.

Part of that pre-intermission lineup is Brother Wilberg’s own composition, “Requiem aeternam” from his “Requiem." Appropriately enough, that work has a Carnegie Hall connection. In 2006, he was asked to compose an introit and epilogue to Vaughn William’s “Dona nobis pacem," which was the main work for the Carnegie Hall National High School Coral Festival of that year.

Brother Wilberg was associate music director of the choir back then, and music director Craig Jessop encouraged him to develop the introit into a full-fledged requiem, which is a sacred musical composition, typically performed as part of a Catholic mass for the souls of the dead.

The concert set in the first half included Mendelssohn’s “Von Himmel Hoch,” Holst’s setting for Psalm 148, Gounod’s soaring and majestic “Unfold, Ye Portals,” and Ginastera’s “Alleluia” from Psalm 150 among other selections, all bookended by a prologue and epilogue of “Old Hundreth,” a hymn tune familiar to many as the setting for "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

The second half opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Glory!” then took an international turn with a sephardic wedding song, "Ah el novio no querre dinero!" and the Nigerian carol “Betelehemu” – featuring soloist Laurent Neu – in which the choir typically surprises and delights audiences by inserting movement, handclapping and joyful chatter into the performance.

The animated rendition of two African American spirituals by soloist and former choir member Alex Boye, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” and “I’m Runnin On,” pleased the crowd as it has done with audiences throughout the tour.

In addition to the Boye performances, associate music director Ryan Murphy directed the choir and orchestra in his own arrangement of “Pilgrim Song” and conducted the orchestra in a Morton Gould arrangement of “Gospel Train – Old Time Religion.”

In both concerts, the closing selection “Battle Hymn of the Republic” brought the audience to its feet, after which the choir and orchestra answered the demand for an encore with “Climb Every Mountain.”

Traditionally on a tour, for the second encore, Brother Newell introduces a surprise guest conductor, usually a prominent person well known to local audiences.

For the Wednesday night performance, the guest conductor was the senior United States senator from New York, Chuck Schumer, who directed the performers in “This Land Is Your Land.”

On Thursday night, the guest conductor was Santino Fontana, a Broadway singer, actor, director and composer who within the past year has been the guest soloist for three concerts in Salt Lake City with the choir and orchestra: Pioneer Day and Christmas in 2014 and a choral director's convention in February of this year.

"He has become our dear friend," Brother Newell said.

The concert was presented on the 2,800-seat Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, the main stage at Carnegie Hall.

“When people say, ‘I’ve played Carnegie Hall,’ that’s where they’ve played,” said Paul C. Bongiorno, president of Starvox Booking, the promoter and booking agent for the Tabernacle Choir tours for the past 15 years.

“It’s easier to plan a wedding than it is to plan a Tabernacle Choir tour,” the promoter said, referring to the coordinating that must transpire.

On each evening the concert was preceded by a VIP reception hosted by the Church public affairs council in New York City. Stephanie Marshal of the council said 500 tickets were distributed to high school choir members in New York, funded by local corporate sponsors.

Present at the reception on each evening was Elder Ronald A. Rasband, the senior president in the Presidency of the Seventy.

"Our church itself is not new to New York," Elder Rasband told the attendees at the receptions, who included prominent government, civic, professional and religious individuals in the area.

"The Church was founded in upstate New York back in 1830 and we've had a long history in this state. Currently, there are approximately 81,000 members of our Church in New York City, 150 very active and vibrant congregations, and we just love being with you. We see members and leaders of other faiths and the faith community here tonight. We especially welcome them and are happy that we can join arms with them in many of the issues that are in the world today. We're grateful to be part of a choir of believers."

In addition to Mr. Fontana, other professional musicians and performers who have appeared with the choir and orchestra attended one or the other of the concerts, including baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell, a stage, film and television actor and singer; and Jason Weber, creative supervisor in the Jim Henson Co. and the "head puppet wrangler" of the famous Muppets who appeared with the choir and orchestra at their Christmas concerts last year in Salt Lake City.

In fact, Mr. Weber invited choir leaders and staff to visit the Muppet workshop in Queens, N.Y., before they leave New York City.

In connection with the concert, the Tabernacle Choir organization held a “Sing with the Choir” contest on social media. Entrants were invited to post a photo of themselves on Instagram holding a sign saying, “I want to sing with the choir.” Winners were selected from among those who did so.

Emily Weaver of Edgemont 1st Ward in Provo, Utah, said when she heard about the contest, she happened to be at the 911 memorial museum during a visit to New York City.

“I just took a paper and put the hashtags they said to put on it,” she said.

“I have a music minor from BYU,” she said. “I have a special place in my heart for the choir, because Mack Wilberg was my director when I was there in concert choir, so I feel like I’m home whenever I’m near the choir.”

Growing emotional, she added, “Whenever I’m in their presence, I definitely have a great feeling. They are special. I can definitely feel that here in New York City. They bring a great light. It’s so fun to take time out and be part of this.”

Larkin Jones of Magnolia, Delaware, a member of the Camden Ward, said she has two friends in the choir. One of them, Desiree Syme, told her about the contest after she was unable to get tickets for the concert.

“I never win anything, so I was freaking out when I got the email that I won,” she said. “I grew up in Utah, and I don’t think I appreciated it until I left Utah. And when you hear them live again, it goes right through you. I’ve seen them at Philly, I’ve seen them at general conference, and now I’m seeing them here.”

Jeanne Whiting of the New Canaan Ward in Connecticut, said she learned about the contest, entered and found out she had won, all within 24 hours. “So I jumped on a train and came in.”

Before traveling to Boston to conclude the tour, the choir is scheduled to appear Friday at Yankee Stadium to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the New York Yankees baseball game.

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