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From rock artists to ministers, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's biggest fans might just surprise you

The man arrived alone at Rohnert Park's Green Music Center moments before the evening's concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.

With a single ticket in hand, he took his seat between two strangers, shot a quick glance at the concert program and joined the applause when choir director Mack Wilberg walked across the stage.

People traveling with the choir instantly recognized this man with the easy smile and tightly cropped hair. A member of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, he had rehearsed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during a sound check two days earlier. News photos captured him sharing laughs with choir members between songs.

So why would he attend the June 27 Rohnert Park concert, at least an hour's drive north from his Oakland home, when he had so recently been with the choir?

It's simple, he said during the intermission. He wanted to connect again with the choir and orchestra. He appreciated and enjoyed their collective talents.

Members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, clad in purple T-shirts, sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the June 27 sound check prior to the choir's concert in Mountain View, California.
Members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, clad in purple T-shirts, sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the June 27 sound check prior to the choir's concert in Mountain View, California. Photo: Photo courtesy of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

The power of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square to splice seemingly disparate communities was on full, daily display during their recent 2018 Classic Coast Tour. As musical ambassadors for the Church, the volunteer performers connected with religious leaders, academics, politicians, media chiefs and, undoubtedly, countless audience members.

Each of the tour's seven concerts included several encores — and, judging by their response, ticket holders left wanting a bit more.

Connecting across wide social spectrums did not surprise the man holding the conductor's baton, choir director Mack Wilberg.

"Music, more than any other form, is a wonderful way to build bridges — particularly vocal music because not only do you have the notes and rhythm, but also the text," he said. "There is something (in music) that can transcend any sort of spoken word. It can unite people."

Musical first aid kits

Sitting in the same concert hall as the San Francisco chorus member were Jack and Janet Reisner. The past several months have been rough for the Latter-day Saint couple from Santa Rosa. The Reisners were among the thousands of Sonoma County residents whose homes were incinerated by wildfire last October.

Jack lost irreplaceable items to the flames, including a vast recorded music collection that included several Mormon Tabernacle Choir vinyl records and CDs. But from that loss came unexpected connections — and a few new friends from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

A day before the Rohnert Park concert, the Reisners were introduced to Paul Shafer, a baritone in the choir who lived in Santa Rosa in the early 2000s. Shafer didn't know the Reisners, but he knows well their decimated Coffey Park neighborhood. Touring the destruction was staggering. When he learned that Jack had lost his prized choir music collection he jumped into action.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir member Paul Shafer, left, presents a handful of Mormon Tabernacle Choir CDs to Janet and Jack Reisner prior to the June 27 concert at Rohnert Park, California. The Reisners are members from nearby Santa Rosa and lost their home to last year's wildfire. Jack Reisner's extensive collection of choir music was also lost in the blaze.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir member Paul Shafer, left, presents a handful of Mormon Tabernacle Choir CDs to Janet and Jack Reisner prior to the June 27 concert at Rohnert Park, California. The Reisners are members from nearby Santa Rosa and lost their home to last year's wildfire. Jack Reisner's extensive collection of choir music was also lost in the blaze. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

"I got on the choir's Facebook page, let people know about Jack, and then asked if anyone had extra choir CDs with them," he said. "I was able to gather about 10 different CDs."

Shafer presented Jack and Janet with the choir's collective gift before the concert.

"Jack was completely caught off guard," said Janet. The new choir music is now included in the family's "musical first aid kit."

The Reisners' connection with the choir "is helping with the healing process," she said. Listening to their music now takes on deeper meaning for the resilient couple, who are rebuilding in their Santa Rosa neighborhood.

Shafer knows he and his fellow choir and orchestra can't give every listener a stack of CDs. But each performance, he said, offers another opportunity "to hopefully reach someone and lift him or her up."

Musical bridge building

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir's capacity to connect can snag headlines. Tens of thousands of Deseret News readers clicked on the paper's coverage of the choir's June 25 sound check that included several guests from the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

"I am not surprised that music can bring two different communities together," said chorus member Chris Pettallano, who grew up a member and a regular listener of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. "This is very exciting to me."

Several days earlier, on the eve of the 2018 tour, soprano Nicole Johnson said the choir's sole purpose was "doing missionary work and singing for people."

But how people will respond to the singing is always an unknown. Wilberg and the other choir leaders can plan the music down to the last note. But as with any other missionary, how their message is received is the stuff of personal agency.

Still, there were moments of sweet reward for choir and orchestra members. Alto Janet Fullmer attended fast and testimony meeting at a Vancouver ward on the day after the choir's only performance in Canada.

“Music, more than any other form, is a wonderful way to build bridges.”

From her seat near the back of the chapel, Fullmer watched as one ward member after another walked to the podium and spoke of their joy and gratitude for the choir.

A woman told of bringing her minister friends to the concert. They left Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre with spirits soaring. One of the ministers later emailed her friend, sharing feelings from her choir concert experience:

"I find myself ... singing (choir favorite) 'Climb Every Mountain,' which I sang as a teenager so very many times as a way of coping with a hard life."

Another ward member began embracing Fullmer "over and over" when she learned she was a choir member. "I want these hugs," the woman said, "to go to every member of the choir."

'A Force for Good'

The Rev. Michael Trice is a Seattle University theology professor and a trustee/secretary of the Parliament of the World's Religions.

He also hosts a podcast on religious issues. When he found out the choir and orchestra would be performing in the Emerald City, he quickly invited Wilberg to join him for a podcast.

Interviewing the director of one of the world's most acclaimed religious musical organizations was an obvious choice for the affable Trice. "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has this rich history, nationally and internationally, that demonstrates the impact of music as a force for good in the world," he said.

Rev. Trice has long respected the choir. He appreciates how its music reflects the spiritual "journey" of the religion it represents. He was eager to ask Wilberg about the choir's future and influence.

Shortly before the July 2 concert in Seattle, a Latter-day Saint made him a promise: "The holy spirit arrives through the music."

Sign outside Seattle's Beneroya Hall announces a sold out show for the July 2 concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.
Sign outside Seattle's Beneroya Hall announces a sold out show for the July 2 concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square. Photo: Photo courtesy of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Her words proved true. The performance, he said, "was a fantastic, exhilarating performance."

Perhaps the choir's remarkable capacity to connect — its ability to make all feel welcome and at home — is best told through Jess Harnell.

The front man for the Los Angeles-based rock band Rock Sugar and the voice of the cartoon character Wakko from the "Animaniacs" television show does not fit, perhaps, the expected profile of a MoTab fan.

With his past-the-shoulder-length hair buried under a trucker's hat, Harnell was easy to spot as he stood among the choir members as an invited sound check guest prior to the June 20 concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

He admits not knowing what to expect when he arrived. But soon his uneasiness disappeared. "I looked up and so many people were smiling and waving at me," he told the choir's blog writer. "What a beautiful family to be part of."

Harnell assumed his designated rehearsal spot among the choir members and soon they were singing segments from the upcoming concert playlist.

"They started throwing sheet music at me that was in Spanish and then stuff that was in African, and I am like going, 'Let me get this straight; I am sight-reading music I have never seen before, picking a part, trying to follow along, and it is in a foreign language.'"

But it all worked out, the blog reported. Another lasting connection assured. And when the sound check came to an end, Harnell didn't want to leave.

"It's like being swept away in this beautiful wave of sound, and I got to feel like I was a part of that, a very small component. It was great."

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