Breakneck Mormon Tabernacle Choir tour pace leaves little room for sightseeing

Recently, I came across a three-ring binder containing sheets of negatives and notes from some tours I went on with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, 1991-2013. I looked at notes on the itineraries and reflected on the strenuous schedules. I want to share some of the travel plans and concert schedules so you will have an idea of what it means to have a “moving experience” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

In June 1991, the choir went on a 21-day tour to eight countries and performed 12 concerts in 11 cities in central and eastern Europe: Frankfurt, Germany, June 10; Strasbourg, France, June 11; Zürich, Switzerland, June 13; Budapest, Hungary, June 15; Vienna, Austria, June 17; Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), June 18; Dresden, Germany, June 19; Berlin, Germany, June 20 (two performances); Warsaw, Poland, June 22; Moscow, Russia, June 24; and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, June 27.

In 1998, the choir went on a 20-day tour that featured 16 concerts in seven countries: London, England, June 14; Brussels, Belgium, June 16; Geneva, Switzerland, June 18; Torino, Italy, June 20; Rome, Italy, June 22; Marseille, France, June 24; Barcelona, Spain, June 26; El Escorial Basilica (near Madrid), June 28; Madrid, Spain, June 29; and Lisbon, Portugal, July 1.

Both tours began with the choir leaving Salt Lake City a day or two before the first concerts and returning the day after the last concerts.

I’ve now set the stage to make a point: When members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir went on those tours, they weren’t tourists. I can say the same for tours I went on to the American and Canadian northeast, the American northwest, central and Midwestern U.S, the U.S. southern states, Southern California, Israel and Washington, D.C., for a U.S. presidential inauguration.

When we reached Berlin during the 1991 tour to central and eastern Europe, Wendell M. Smoot, who was then president of the choir, told me: “The choir is musically exhausted. We’ve been on the move constantly. In 10 days, we’ve performed 10 concerts, counting the double-header here in Berlin. That kind of schedule is almost unheard of for music groups, especially singers.”

President Smoot said he tried to arrange for “a little sightseeing tour” in each city. Let me point out that the definition of “sightseeing” on a Mormon Tabernacle Choir tour is much more limited than what one ordinarily would envision. Most often, the sightseeing excursion consisted of a guide on a bus saying something to the effect, “If you’ll look quickly to your left, you will see one of this city’s most famous landmarks. … Now look to your right. Oops, too late, we’ve already passed it.”

The schedule, to put it mildly, was grueling. I remember particularly the 13-hour bus ride from Madrid to Lisbon in 1998. We had a brief stop in Toledo and had box lunches on the bus later that afternoon.

“I wouldn’t do this for anything except the gospel,” declared an exhausted Joyce Winters as she dashed from a rehearsal/sound check to change into her concert dress and eat dinner before one concert. “I wouldn’t work this hard for pay.”

On Monday morning, June 22, choir members enthusiastically boarded buses at Civitavechia for sightseeing in Rome, but the time was greatly limited by slow-moving traffic and rehearsal/sound check requirements.

Seeing Rome with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would not top any travel agent’s recommendations for the best way to have an unhurried visit to the Eternal City.

The Italian sun bore down unmercifully that day. Rehearsal began at 5 p.m. Afterward, choir members had time to eat a sack dinner that was provided, but were advised by doctors traveling with them to not eat the chicken or boiled eggs that had been in the sacks since early morning. Earlier, they were advised to not eat the breaded veal in their sack lunches. Those who had not purchased food during their brief “sightseeing tours” got by on rolls, fruit and warm “fizzy” bottled water.

I worried the singers would be so tired and suffering from the heat to the point they wouldn't be up to their usual standard of excellence. However, I witnessed a transformation. When the women dressed in aqua and the men attired in dark suits walked onto the stage for their concert that began at 9 p.m., there was no doubt that this was a group ready to perform. The singers practically radiated the spirit of the music they presented. Their faces seemed to glow — perhaps aided somewhat by the day's sunshine — and their eyes sparkled. Without doubt, they were as thrilled to be performing in Rome as the audience was to hear them.

They accomplished their mission: to perform, not sightsee.