By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News Staff Writer
Reuniting hundreds of former choir members from the past six decades, the Tabernacle Choir commemorated 60 years of continuous network radio broadcasting July 16.
The past members - including several who were present during the choir's first network broadcast on July 15, 1929 - were among an audience that filled the Salt Lake Tabernacle for the anniversary presentation of "Music and the Spoken Word," the weekly, half-hour CBS Radio program.An additional half-hour of programming was broadcast over KSL in Salt Lake City immediately after the CBS broadcast. KSL, which originates the network program, carries it on television as well as radio.
Dispersed among the audience, former choir members joined the current choir in a spirited rendition of "Hallelujah Chorus" during the second half-hour.
President Ezra Taft Benson and his counselors, President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson, attended the broadcast, as did other General Authorities.
Speaking for the First Presidency during the second half-hour, President Hinckley praised the choir for its "six decades of public service."
"In seasons of conflict its voice has been one of peace," he remarked. "In times of doubt and cynicism it has brought reassurance and faith. To those in distress, in sorrow and in despair, it has given hope and strength and resolution. To a world at times unsure of God, it has spoken without equivocation and with certainty, singing His praises with majestic and moving power. In a culture of shifting values and changing tastes, it has won and held the love and the loyalty of a vast audience spanning the generations and reaching across the continent and to foreign lands.
"It has become a most remarkable and valued national treasure, a vibrant part of the soul of our beloved nation."
He noted that the choir began on Temple Square more than a century ago, its first concert hall being a bowery of brush and branches. He added that it first achieved national recognition in 1893 at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago, and that it has since performed in many world fairs and expositions.
Mentioning the choir's tours in the United States and abroad, he said, "Always, its purpose has been the same: to give voice to the gospel of peace and human brotherhood."
President Hinckley noted the choir's offerings on radio, television, motion pictures and recordings, and added, "No medium has touched the lives of so many for so long as has the weekly CBS Radio broadcast of `Music and the Spoken Word.' "
Messages via videotape were presented during the first half hour from U.S. President George Bush, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and others.
"For six decades, the choir has been heard across the country and around the world," Bush commented, "opening hearts, uplifting souls and brightening lives. While the Oak Ridge Boys or Loretta or Crystal may be among the day-to-day favorites of mine, it's the choir that marks a special day.
"Earlier this year, the inaugural celebration was made even more memorable and enjoyable by your beautiful voices. I'll never forget your glorious music at the end of the inaugural parade.
"Just as the early Mormon pioneers sang the words of that famous hymn [
Come, Come Ye Saints'T,We'll make the air with music ring, shout praises to our God and King,' so today, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a living symbol of those beautiful words. From the days of the early settlers of the valley of the Great Salt Lake, who walked miles to hear your soaring voices, to today's generations who listen to your broadcasts every week, millions worldwide have been inspired by the joy of your glorious music. You are one of America's greatest treasures."
Preceding the choir's performance of its popular "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Reagan was seen via videotape saying: "Walt Whitman once wrote: `I hear America singing.' Well, I do too. And often I hear her in the voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
"At my first inauguration as president of the United States, I wanted very much to re-ignite the fires of liberty and re-inspire the American Spirit. And no one sings the anthems of America quite like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
"It isn't just your inspirational singing that moves us, it's also the heritage of faith and self-reliance you represent, a heritage handed down from your pioneer forebears who carved homes out of a barren wilderness.
"The choir's singing was a highlight of our inauguration, as we knew it would be. I'm sure I speak for all Americans when I say thank you for saying so well what all of us feel about this land of the free and home of the brave.
"There is no more inspirational moment for any American - and that includes Ronald Reagan - than to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing `Glory, glory hallelujah, His truth is marching on.' "
CBS Radio President Nancy Widmann, who attended the July 16 programs in the Tabernacle, addressed the gathering during the first half hour. She observed: "A study of our weekly broadcasts would give you a pretty good course in American history. In 1934, we beamed a special choir broadcast to Admiral Bird and the members of his South Pole expedition. And in 1942, we sent `Music and the Spoken Word' to Hawaii to Americans who were stunned from the attack at Pearl Harbor. I believe we helped thaw the cold war a bit with our broadcast . . . on Radio Free Europe. We swept into the space age in the 1970s and '80s, including transatlantic satellite broadcasts. We mourned America's worst space disaster with a special tribute to the astronauts on Challenger. The choir has always had a special gift to lift the people of the world in their time of need."
She declared, "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir represents the finest of inspirational programming today as it has for these past six decades."
Delivering a taped tribute was Rand V. Araskog, chairman of International Telephone and Telegraph Corp., who repeated the reminiscenses he wrote in a Reader's Digest article last December. Araskog and his father shared a love for the song "Old Refrain," as performed by the choir. Two years before his father's death, Araskog heard the song on a choir broadcast and telephoned his father to let him hear the song over the telephone. Araskog told of being comforted a few week's after his father's funeral when he again heard the choir perform the song.
Operatic soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa said via videotape that she was able to fulfill a childhood dream when she received the chance to work with the choir.
Also on tape, theater and motion picture star Hal Linden, who occasionally sits in with the choir during rehearsals, reflected: "I like to be a part of the best in the field, so when I get the opportunity to sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, that's it, that's class A."
The second half-hour featured taped comments from Natalie Sleeth, composer of "Joy in the Morning," and Arthur Harris, who arranged the choir's version of "The Sound of Music."
Commentator J. Spencer Kinard said choir members "are warm, wonderful people. Would that all the world would know them as I do, as loving, caring people who strive to live the teachings of the Lord."
Numbers performed during the two half-hour programs included "A Mighty Fortress," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and Leroy Robertson's composition of "The Lord's Prayer."
Choir director Jerold D. Ottley and assistant Donald Ripplinger shared conducting duties. Robert Cundick and John Longhurst were at the organ, playing together on some of the numbers. They performed an organ duet of "National Emblem March" during the first half-hour.
Recognized during the second half-hour as the oldest living former choir member was Evengeline Thomas Beesley, 95. Also present were most of the other 14 surviving singers who were part of the choir during the original network broadcast in 1929.