Episode 46: Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt on his role with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt has been called as the new president of the world-renowned Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. He will apply experience gained during decades of civil service to guide the Tabernacle Choir into a more global future. Elected to three terms as governor of Utah, he served twice in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush — first as Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and later as the secretary of health and human services.

This episode of the Church News podcast features President Leavitt talking about his new role, the strengths of his wife, Jacalyn — who will serve with him, and what the coming months look like for the choir amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

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Transcription:

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question, “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast and this is what I know now.”

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has named former Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt as the new president of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. He will be joined in this position by his wife, Jacalyn. Gov. Leavitt was elected to three terms as Utah governor; and from 2003 to 2009, he served twice in the cabinet of President George W. Bush — first as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and later as the secretary of Health and Human Services. He joins this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about his new role with the choir, and to look forward to all things coming up for the acclaimed organization. Thank you for taking this time, Gov. Leavitt, and welcome to the Church News podcast.

1:30  

President Mike Leavitt: Thank you. My pleasure to be with you.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, now you have spent most of your career in public service striving to lead people to common ground. Now, you have an opportunity to serve with the Tabernacle Choir. How can an international choir create common ground for people of all faiths and no faith to connect and come together?

1:50  

President Mike Leavitt: Well, Sarah, common ground is almost always achieved when people listen to each other, when they’re willing to acknowledge a different point of view. They may not agree with it, but they’re at least willing to have a conversation. And I’ve noticed that in almost every case, common ground starts by connecting with something they have in common. Sometimes it’s their family, sometimes it could be a hobby or something of interest. It also requires them to begin to feel a desire for that kind of harmony. I think sacred music plays a role in getting people ready to do that. 

I recall once — I was governor at the time — and I went to a correctional facility, and I sat down with a young person who was incarcerated because of things that he had done. And I began to ask him about change, and he said, “Everyone tries to change me. My parents have tried to change me, my girlfriend tried to change me, they’re trying to change me in here. But the reality is, I’m not going to change until I change inside.” That spoke a sermon to me. People need to change inside, and sacred music is a conduit to the kinds of feelings that allow people to change and to open up to new thoughts. I think that’s something that the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square produces, and it is a sense of a desire for people to feel their best self.

Sarah Jane Weaver: That is such an interesting thing, because we are coming off of a pandemic where people have had so much time to, as Jeffrey R. Holland said earlier this year — he said, “This is a time to look inside of each of us and see if we like who we see there.” And so, it’s a time for people to contemplate and maybe to connect with things spiritually that they had not had the opportunity to do before. How can the choir spread peace during turbulent times?

French horn player Will Francis, second from right, gather with his section-mates prior to a performance of the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. From left, Claire Grover, Lori Clark, Francis, Steve Park.
French horn player Will Francis, second from right, gather with his section-mates prior to a performance of the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. From left, Claire Grover, Lori Clark, Francis, Steve Park. Credit: Courtesy of Will Francis

3:51  

President Mike Leavitt: I have experienced, in my public service, a lot of political division. I’ve seen intense economic competition, I’ve witnessed war, racism and inequity. I’ve come to see the value of government, I’ve come to understand its limitations and our limitations. Ultimately, it requires people to be open to change, open to a sense of harmony. And I think one of the things that the choir does is that it speaks a language that is universal, and that is the language of the Spirit, or the language of goodness, or the language of a desire for peace. And those things are rarely achieved just with government. It changes when people change themselves, and hopefully, when they hear the music of the choir, it will inspire them to seek better things for themselves and a better life for all of us.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I’m so happy that you mentioned how government and public service has shaped your perspectives, because this really is a divisive time. What kinds of things have you been contemplating as you’ve thought about the divisions in the world right now?

5:03  

President Mike Leavitt: Well, I, again, I think I’ve come to understand the value of government. I’ve also come to see its limitations. I’ve come to understand that countries are just an aggregate heart of the people, and that we have borders, but we’re still people. And one of the things that the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square can do is speak a language that’s understood more universally, and let people focus on the things that are important in their own lives. And I think it’s healing, it’s joyful, it’s peaceful, and it causes people to want to be better.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and this is a different kind of call to serve than you’ve done before. It’s sort of a stepping away from public service and an opportunity to serve the Church, and to represent the mission of the choir. What does that opportunity mean to you?

5:57

President Mike Leavitt: My life has been, in large measure, a series of opportunities to serve. This is a different kind of service. I like to be involved in things that are bigger than just me, and this clearly is an endeavor that encompasses not just the Church, but also people of all faiths, and those who lack faith, and countries across the world — the Tabernacle Choir is a brand that’s recognized worldwide. That’s a real privilege and an opportunity for service that I’m deeply grateful for.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And you’re 70 now, you haven’t had a chance to retire. This doesn’t look like you’ll be retiring anytime soon. How do you feel about that?

6:41  

President Mike Leavitt: Well, I think I’m likely not to retire in kind. I might live a full life and a full schedule, and I like being involved in things that I believe are making the world a better place. And this is a unique opportunity that I didn’t expect, but once the surprise was over, it’s been replaced by a sense of both gratitude and optimism. There are ways I can use the experience I’ve gained in other ways to drive a cause and a purpose that I know is deeply important and eternal.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And this is also an opportunity for you to serve with your wife.

7:16  

President Mike Leavitt: I’m particularly pleased about that. Jackie, of course, has had many roles on her own, where she has been able to bring great value to the world and, of course, to our family. My jobs, for the most part, have caused me to work, in some ways, separate from her, in some ways together — when she was first lady of Utah, we worked together a great deal. But this is one in which we will work together as companions. That’s the way this is being organized now by the Church. 

There are two changes that are being implemented with my turn of service, and first, it will be that Jackie will serve alongside. In the past, the president of the choir has been a singular role. And then there will be two counselors, there’ll be a presidency. So, I look forward to working with them and working alongside Jackie and making this not just a wonderful personal experience, but also to bring value to a church I love and to mankind in general.

The newly called Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square Presidency and their wives. From left, Elder L. Whitney Clayton and Sister Kathy Clayton; Sister Jacalyn Leavitt and President Mike Leavitt; Sister Debbie Porter and Brother Gary B. Porter.
The newly called Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square Presidency and their wives. From left, Elder L. Whitney Clayton and Sister Kathy Clayton; Sister Jacalyn Leavitt and President Mike Leavitt; Sister Debbie Porter and Brother Gary B. Porter. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it’s my understanding that in order to get into the choir as part of the audition process, people have to take a pretty extensive test that reflects their technical background, and their musical knowledge. Certainly, I could not pass that test. I’m not sure Jason Swensen, who covers the choir for the Church News, could pass that test. I don’t know, Governor, if you could pass that test. Talk to me about your music ability and your background.

8:44  

President Mike Leavitt: Well, let’s start by focusing on the Tabernacle Choir organization. We know about the choir, but we don’t focus enough on the Orchestra at Temple Square, or the Bells at Temple Square, or the ensemble that is essentially a training choir. There are more than 600 volunteer musicians who, through various mediums of their art, express together the great things that the choir organization does. It’s also supported by many who provide work behind the scenes. These are devoted volunteers who produce the product of one of the world’s greatest choirs, and we should start with an appreciation for that. 

Second, they’re very talented people who are accomplished. To get into the choir is a demanding process. They have to start with native ability. Then the training course — it’s a kind of boot camp, if you will. Sixteen weeks, for three hours, twice a week, where they learn the choir way of doing things. It’s what gives this choir 360 voices, that unique sound. In addition to that they give of themselves routinely. We will be doing a tour next year in eight cities and countries in Europe that will require all of them to take three weeks of what will, I’m sure, be a grand adventure; but more importantly, it’ll be very hard work. I’ve traveled in that fashion, and by the end of the time, they will have spent their energies in a very productive way. Now, could I pass that test? I doubt very much I could, and I feel quite confident that they did not ask me to preside over the choir because of the contribution I might make to the bass section.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, I suspect that that’s true. What kind of contributions will Jackie bring to this call?

10:51  

President Mike Leavitt: Jackie is an extraordinary musician. Let’s start with that. She’s spent a lot of her time as a vocalist and plays a number of instruments, but Jackie’s contribution, I think, will be to just — she is very good at demonstrating love for people and being able to bring people together in a way that will bring the sense of harmony and good-spiritedness. And then they may be administrative functions that she undertakes. This is a new role, and we’re still working to assure or to figure out exactly what that role will be.

Sarah Jane Weaver: When you mentioned just the time and attention that goes into the choir and how much energy goes into preparing for every performance the choir undergoes — we’re coming out of a time where the choir has not been practicing. Practicing was just delayed again because of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic. Let’s look forward to the next few months before general conference. What does that look like for the choir?

11:52  

President Mike Leavitt: The choir is led — extraordinarily well — by Mack Wilberg and his team, and they have developed a plan on how they can bring the choir back. While they have not been meeting, the choir has not been without work. They continue on their own to keep their voices strong and to learn new pieces of music. They have a rehearsal schedule that will allow them to prepare for and to be ready for conference.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I hope you’ll take a minute and share some things with us about your own personal life. You know, we’re all familiar with your public service, but will you be willing to share something of your membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and how that has defined your life?

12:36  

President Mike Leavitt: Well, first, I am a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, and likewise, a devoted member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have served in the Church always, in one role or another. Sometimes as a teacher, sometimes in the leadership role, sometimes supporting the leadership of others. But most importantly, I’ve been working to become more Christlike myself, and I think that’s what mortality provides all of us. It requires that we’re perpetually getting better and improving. And I think that’s true for the choir — we have to continually be getting better and working to emulate the example of Jesus Christ and to represent as emissaries, really, for the Church and for the Savior himself.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you’ve had experiences with public service that have taken you across the globe. How has your international experience shaped your perspective of a global church?

13:37  

President Mike Leavitt: Well, I have traveled the world as a result of my work. I’ve done diplomatic missions, and on every continent, I’ve come to understand that people are just people; that people have families, and they have insecurities, and they have worries and fears and faults and strengths; and that while the world is divided into nations, it is one human family. And I think my service in the choir will give me an opportunity to use many of the experiences that I’ve had in the past to make the choir and its mission more effective, but it will also allow me to continue to learn in the way that I have in the past.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And certainly music is a universal unifier.

14:29  

President Mike Leavitt: Yeah. Music is a universal language, because it communicates through our feelings, and we may hear lyrics that move us — we’re moved inside. And it’s true for many art forms, but music, in my experience, is unique in that way.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’ve always thought of the choir as sort of the Church’s gift to the world. Certainly, it’s not just for Latter-day Saints, but for all people.

14:56  

President Mike Leavitt: The choir is a gift to the world. It is one of the great and most unique choral offerings anywhere in the world, and it’s known around the world, and people intuitively want to hear more of it. And it comes as a gift not just from the Church, but from the hundreds of musicians who give of themselves, who work hard to be part of producing this great outcome and the feelings that it generates. I think, in the future, we need to realize that our mission is to expand that gift, to expand it to larger and more global audiences, to use tools that are available now that have not been in the past, tools of social media and digitization, the capacity to use the internet. Those have been used in the past, but we can become better at it. I think the choir will continue to travel and be a physical representation of the Church as its sponsor. And I think the future is very bright in a world where the choir has what the world needs.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you mentioned some of the things that are ahead for the choir. What are some of your goals for the choir going forward?

16:13  

President Mike Leavitt: I would like the choir to continue to have its audiences grow. I’d like them to be more diverse. I’d like this to meet the mission of the choir, which, at the heart, is to provide to every generation and to people all over the world, music that causes them to reflect, to feel a sense of the divine, and at the same time to feel joyful and entertained.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, in so many ways, the choir is an emissary for the Savior. Can you talk about that?

16:42  

President Mike Leavitt: The choir is an emissary for the Savior. The Savior himself said, “My peace I give unto you.” He was referring to a feeling of His Spirit, and I think that choir and sacred music is a conduit to the Spirit. It channels a sense of peace, and joy, and happiness, and healing, and the world needs more of that.

Sarah Jane Weaver: When you’ve only been with the choir a few weeks, but certainly members of the choir have been away from practicing together and performing together for many, many months during this pandemic. Have you been able to glimpse how hard that is for people who want to share their gifts through music, who want to further the goals of the Church and who have not been able to?

17:33  

President Mike Leavitt: We’ve all had our version of this during a pandemic. It has changed our patterns, it has changed our ability to do things we want to do. For a musician that has a gift, has developed it, and has this window of time where they can share it with the world as part of a great choir, I am sure it’s been particularly painful. Now, we’re still in a pandemic situation and our ability to do all of this is not certain. I think over the course of time, we may, in fact, be in a situation where we’re coexisting with this virus for some time, and so we may have to change and we may have to find ways in which we can deliver it and stay healthy. That has to be our first priority, is keeping the choir and the audiences of the choir safe.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, Governor, do you have a favorite hymn?

18:29  

President Mike Leavitt: There are many hymns that I love, and I love to hear the choir sing them. I think most people who know the choir have some moment in their life where they have felt things that were meaningful to them. Many times I have enjoyed hearing the choir sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or I’ve heard them singing “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” I’ve heard them singing the “Messiah.” All those things had powerful impacts on me, and I know I wasn’t alone. That’s the reason the choir is so universally appreciated. 

In the course of the last few weeks, I have spoken with colleagues around the country about this new responsibility. People who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they instantly respond in a way that makes me know they love the choir. They love the way the choir makes them feel. And these are not always appreciators of, or connoisseurs of music. They’re ordinary people who know a feeling of peace when it comes to them, and they hunger for more of it.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and certainly based on the quality of guest artists that have participated with the choir over the years, this is an organization that people are drawn to, that they want to be a part of, and now you get to be a part of it.

19:57  

President Mike Leavitt: It’s a great privilege and one that I will always be grateful for.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you know, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast, and we always close with the same question and we always let our guests have the last word. And so the question we like to ask is, “What do you know now?” and I know you’ve only had the opportunity to contemplate service at the level you’re going to be giving it with the choir for a few weeks, but I’d love for you to tell us what you know now, after serving with the choir.

20:30  

President Mike Leavitt: I know that the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is an emissary of Christ. I know that the choir is, in fact, an important representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know that I’m surrounded by other devoted followers of Christ. I have optimism and a strong belief that the world needs what the choir provides, and that during this phase of my life, it will, in fact, allow me to provide a sense of service to my fellow man and to my God.

21:18  

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on thechurchnews.com