As The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square prepares for the second stop, in the Philippines, on the multiyear “Hope” tour, choir President Michael O. Leavitt remembers the concerts in Mexico City, Mexico — the first tour stop.
“It was just electric. The audience embraced it,” he said, recalling how the audience stood, clapped and sang along with the songs in Spanish. “They felt the message we had hoped to impart. And I believe we will have the same experience in the Philippines.”
The choir and orchestra’s tour in the Philippines from Feb. 20-29 is the first time the group of volunteer musicians have been in the country. They were last in Asia in 1979 with concerts in Japan and Korea.
With 853,254 Church members across 1,272 congregations and 23 missions, the Philippines has the most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Asia. Outside of the U.S., there are only more members in Mexico (1.5 million) and Brazil (1.4 million).
For the world tour, “we have made the decision that we will focus on areas of the world where there are large concentrations of Latter-day Saints and where missionary work has a vibrancy where we may have the ability to help,” President Leavitt said.
The Philippines is a majority Christian nation, with most Filipinos identifying as Catholics.
“We are offering a message of hope through Christ. And if there’s any country in the world where that message will be well received, it is the Philippines. It’s a vibrant Christian nation where people speak openly about it, and we can sing and perform the same way,” President Leavitt said.
Leo Marcelo, a first-year choir member who is from the Philippines, said it’s a “dream come true” for the choir and orchestra to visit his home country.
“You see that you see them on TV,” he said of how many people have heard the choir’s music. “That’s like a world away.”
He’s been helping the choir with the Tagalog pronunciations for a few of the songs it is singing. Tagalog is the most-spoken language in the Philippines.
“The Filipinos will just love [it]. Even the effort is just going to be so appreciated,” he said.
Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra’s ‘Hope’ tour
Previously, the choir and orchestra’s tours or travel assignments have been through many countries in a single trip and appearing mostly at small concert halls, President Leavitt said in a previous interview with the Church News.
“We’re now changing that and appearing in fewer places, but in much larger proportions,” he said.
Now, the choir and orchestra are doing a multiyear, multicity “Hope” tour, where they are going to a city and doing multiple concerts at larger venues.
In 2023, the choir and orchestra’s first stop was in Mexico, where the choir and orchestra performed at the Toluca Cathedral and two concerts in Mexico City’s National Auditorium, which seats about 10,000 people. The two concerts in the National Auditorium featured guest artist singers Adassa and Alex Melecio and radio host Mariano Osorio and shared messages and songs of hope.
The concerts marked a couple of firsts for the choir and orchestra — the first tour concert to be livestreamed and the first where tickets were free.
In the Philippines, two of the concerts, Feb. 27-28, will be at the SM Mall of Asia Arena, which can seat nearly 9,000. Registration in January for tickets for both concerts lasted a few hours as organizers received the maximum number of registrations. The concert on Feb. 28 will be livestreamed on the choir’s YouTube channel, and local Church leaders are encouraging people to gather to watch it.
“In terms of its proportion and the type of production we’re doing, [it’s] like our Christmas special,” President Leavitt said.
Broadway singer and actress Lea Salonga, who is from the Philippines, will be the featured guest artist at the concert. Salonga previously performed with the choir and orchestra during the 2022 Christmas concert, “Season of Light: Christmas With The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square,” including “Payapang Daigdig” — a Filipino song that translates to “Peaceful World” and can be considered a counterpart to “Silent Night.”
The phrase choir officials are using is “anchor and radiate,” said Karmel Newell, the choir’s director of member support.
“We can go to a place around the world and radiate from there, and from there and there and there,” she said.
The choir’s social channels featured a model of the stage design, including a traditional welcome arch made of bamboo.
Choir leaders are also implementing lessons learned in Mexico.
“We’re traveling a lot more than we were, than the choir has traditionally traveled,” President Leavitt said. That includes working to develop better travel and logistical tools.
“We now have a travel app that allows us to have instantaneous contact with more than 500 people to measure their health and well-being to find out where they are, to make certain that they are on the bus or in the hotel. That seems like a small detail, but it’s huge. We have the ability to not just message but to get the pulse check on how people are doing,” he said.
Also, President Leavitt said the choir has been working more effectively with the Church’s Philippines Area presidency in working toward its objectives.
Health protocols have been updated for this tour, too.
“We had illness in Mexico, and it was both uncomfortable … and it was something we like to avoid,” he said. Prior to leaving on Feb. 20, all choir and orchestra members, staff and others going on tour will be tested four times for COVID-19. Also, the choir’s medical team and others are working to educate those traveling on things that can result in travelers’ illnesses.
“All of these are ways in which we’re getting better,” he said.
In addition to physical preparation, President Leavitt is encouraging the choir to be spiritually prepared.
“We are on a mission — every member of the choir is a missionary. And our job is to be a conduit of a message of importance to those who hear. And our ability to deliver that, in spiritual terms, is dependent upon our readiness as people and as missionaries to do so,” President Leavitt said. “And that requires preparation. And it requires us to go through the process that each individual uses to gain a sense of closeness to the Spirit and to our Heavenly Father. And it is, I think, a very important part of preparation for this type of endeavor.”
Mission statement and objectives
The three words “throughout the world” added to The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s mission statement have changed the perspective of the choir and orchestra’s leadership and the direction of the choir.
“A very important change for the Tabernacle Choir has been a change in our mission statement. Our mission statement was amended to add very important words: ‘throughout the world.’ And we have an objective now to be a choir that’s both known around the world and that represents members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who live throughout the world,” President Leavitt said in a previous interview with the Church News.
The expanded mission statement now reads: “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performs music that inspires people throughout the world to draw closer to the divine and feel God’s love for His children.”
This direction has changed how the choir and orchestra travels, inviting participants from around the world to perform with the choir at general conferences and expanding the languages of the weekly “Music & the Spoken Word.”
Also, the choir’s leadership has four objectives: reflect the global membership of the Church, to be more visible in the world, expand the choir’s digital audience and magnify the choir’s missionary role.
“The Tabernacle Choir, of course, represents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a global church, and the choir needs to be representative of all of those members,” President Leavitt said.
Newell noted that there are currently 44 global participants from 25 countries. “This is an inspired program that really helps members of the Church feel their covenant belonging all around the world. We have, for example, at these two international concerts in Mexico, and also in the Philippines, we have Filipino and Mexican singers who are native from that area who sang in Mexico and who will be singing in the Philippines right alongside the local choir members. So it’s this feeling of we’re all in this together, we all belong, we’re all covenant makers and striving to work together toward common goals.”
President Leavitt said that the Tabernacle Choir meets about 150 times a year, including rehearsals and performances, “to maintain the highly professional polish that it has.”
The global participants are those who meet every qualification of the Tabernacle Choir, except for the requirement to live within 100 miles of Salt Lake City.
“They work hard to prepare, and when they come, they fit right in. And, I might add, [they bring] an enormously powerful spirit of brother and sisterhood with members of the choir who are there year-round,” President Leavitt added.
‘Music & the Spoken Word’ expanding in Spanish, Portuguese
The choir’s weekly broadcast of “Music & the Spoken Word,” which began in 1929, started a Spanish version in July 2023, including Spanish-speaking narrators rather than a voice dubbed over announcer Lloyd Newell’s voice. It’s available on The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s Spanish YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/@elcorodeltabernaculo.
A Portuguese version is in the works.
“Now, we’re in the early stages of learning how to do that, and we had to expand the audience access points. We had to get television and radio stations in those countries. So we’re working hard to find them in Brazil and South America and in Central America,” President Leavitt said. “And it’s going just fine; we’re getting better and better at it. But there will be a day when our audience is large, and in which we’ve learned the lessons we need to to reach them in their own language.”
How to listen to the Tabernacle Choir
“Music allows me to feel and to sense my life in the context of something that’s eternal. And I actually think that’s what President [Russell M.] Nelson means when he says, ‘Think celestial.’ I think it’s about living our lives in a context that’s bigger than today. And listening to sacred music and serving in the Tabernacle Choir has been a constant reminder of that for me,” Leavitt said.
And since he’s been the choir president, President Leavitt said he’s come to appreciate the commitment of the 360-voice choir and the orchestra musicians, 85 of whom perform at a time from a roster of 200.
“I’ve come to understand — in better, more precise terms — the remarkable dedication and sacrifice of people in The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and the orchestra. They put in many hours. They sacrifice enormously, but also they receive satisfaction,” Leavitt said. “I’ve come to realize how important it is that we are investing their sacrifice in the most efficient things possible, that we never take for granted the price they paid to be able to provide the value that we’re going to make available. And so making it available in the most efficient way is something that I’ve come to feel quite deeply about.”