Following 555-day pandemic-forced pause, Tabernacle Choir makes ‘the air with music ring’ once again

Last January, a Church News reporter asked The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square Choir music director Mack Wilberg how it would feel — following a lengthy pandemic layoff — to once again stand in front of musicians, raise his baton and “make the air with music ring.

“I think about that every day,” answered Wilberg. “We will all be very grateful to be together. We will not take anything for granted.”

Added associate music director Ryan Murphy: “We’re going to feel things more deeply than we did before. There was already much passion — but that passion will be that much greater when we are able to serve again and share again.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, that passion and, yes, the music that defines the Tabernacle Choir once again filled the Conference Center. For the first time in 555 days, the choir gathered for rehearsal.

The first hymn practiced under Wilberg’s direction: “Come, Ye Children of the Lord.

Tabernacle Choir member Staci Dame talks about how it feels to resume rehearsals after more than 18 months while at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.
Tabernacle Choir member Staci Dame talks about how it feels to resume rehearsals after more than 18 months while at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“We have been anticipating this reunion for so long,” said soprano Staci Dame before joining her choirmates for the historic rehearsal “I feel like I have come home.”

Anthony Kirkham, a baritone and five-year choir veteran, admitted to a bit of rust following the long layoff from performing with the Tabernacle Choir. “I suspect I’ll have some cobwebs to work out … but I’m so thankful to be back singing with the choir.”

Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square member Anthony Kirkham talks about how it feels to resume rehearsals after more than 18 months while at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.
Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square member Anthony Kirkham talks about how it feels to resume rehearsals after more than 18 months while at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Prior to Tuesday’s rehearsal, Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, who serves as the choir’s adviser, spoke of the essential role prayer is playing in the choir’s return to rehearsing and performing.

“I invite you to continue to pray for this choir to continue, uninterrupted, so we will have a great general conference and a great Christmas concert,” he said.

Still, the realities of the ongoing pandemic were evident during Tuesday’s rehearsal. Caution defined the gathering. Every choir member and official — along with the several journalists covering the event — submitted to a rapid-result COVID-19 test. A green sticker signaled a negative result.

Such testing procedures will continue at all choir rehearsals and performances until circumstances deem them unnecessary.

Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square President Michael Leavitt, left, and Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé walk in the Conference Center on their way to the choir's rehearsal at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. It was the choir's first rehearsal in more than 18 months.
Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square President Michael Leavitt, left, and Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé walk in the Conference Center on their way to the choir’s rehearsal at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. It was the choir’s first rehearsal in more than 18 months. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In his brief remarks Tuesday, Tabernacle Choir President Mike Leavitt spoke of the unprecedented circumstances that have kept the choir from performing. “It has been 555 days since this marvelous sound has echoed through the chambers of the Conference Center and Tabernacle,” he said.

Frequent COVID-19 testing and social distancing practices, he added, are small sacrifices “for the privilege of being together and to testify in song of the Savior and His love. I have every confidence that we will continue and that the choir will move forward.”

President Leavitt recently announced the implementation of a seven-layer COVID-19 protection plan. The goal is straightforward: return to performances as safely and quickly as possible.

In a Sept. 9 meeting, President Leavitt said the plan to resume choir activity was analogous to stacking slices of Swiss cheese. Each “slice” has holes, but the more layers of protection applied, the higher the likelihood that COVID-19 virus spread can be minimized. 

Mack Wilberg, director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, gets to work as the choir rehearses at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. It was the choir's first rehearsal in more than 18 months.
Mack Wilberg, director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, gets to work as the choir rehearses at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. It was the choir’s first rehearsal in more than 18 months. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The choir’s strategy:

  1. Vaccinations. All performers must be vaccinated and provide evidence of being immunized. (Those not vaccinated will be granted leave until conditions improve.)
  2. Screening. Those with health conditions that limit effectiveness of their immune systems, even if vaccinated, or those with immunocompromised household members will also be granted leave.
  3. Testing. Every performer and support personnel will be tested prior to each rehearsal or performance.
  4. Social distancing. For general conference, only half of the choir will sing at each session.
  5. Face coverings. Masks will be worn except when members are actively rehearsing or performing.
  6. Self-reporting. Organization members will report COVID-19 symptoms or household exposure and stay home with any symptoms, even sniffles.
  7. Ventilation. Performances will be temporarily limited to the Conference Center because of greater ventilation safety.

Such rigor is required due to the virus-spread challenges posed by singing and playing wind instruments.

As noted in the strategy list, half the choir will sing in the Saturday morning session of October general conference, and the other half in the Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon sessions. 

Based on results, procedures will be extended to enable rehearsals and performances of the Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells at Temple Square.

Live broadcasts of “Music & the Spoken Word” and opening rehearsals and performances to the public may follow later in the fall.

The plan’s effectiveness will be monitored — and if signs indicate it is not working, the choir will pause rehearsals again. President Leavitt asked for patience as the protocols are implemented and the faith and prayers of all involved to invoke heaven’s blessings.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square rehearses at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. It was the choir's first rehearsal in more than 18 months.
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square rehearses at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. It was the choir’s first rehearsal in more than 18 months. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News