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Episode 166: Tabernacle Choir President Michael O. Leavitt and Director of Member Support Karmel Newell on the future of the choir and the power of music at Christmas

‘Music allows me to feel and to sense my life in the context of something that’s eternal,’ says Tabernacle Choir President Michael O. Leavitt on the Church News podcast

Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints look forward to holiday music as an important part of Christmas celebrations, including the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s annual Christmas concert.

This episode of the Church News podcast features Tabernacle Choir President Michael O. Leavitt and Karmel Newell, the choir’s director of member support, discussing the music of the Tabernacle Choir during Christmas and year-round.

They also talk about choir priorities and future efforts. Following a successful year, the choir looks forward to a visit to the Philippines in February 2024 and the expansion of its global participant initiative.

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Transcript:

President Mike Leavitt: An unexpected pleasure of being called to be choir president is that during Christmas season, my life is filled with the most glorious Christmas music you can imagine. 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.

0:57

Sarah Jane Weaver: This is Sarah Jane Weaver, executive editor of the Church News, welcoming you 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.

So many of us look forward to holiday music as an important part of our annual Christmas celebrations. This includes, of course, the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s annual Christmas concert. Today on the Church News podcast, we discuss the music of the Tabernacle Choir during the Christmas season and year-round, with Tabernacle Choir President Mike Leavitt and Karmel Newell, Tabernacle Choir director of member support. Welcome, both of you, to the Church News podcast. 

President Mike Leavitt: Thank you.

Karmel Newell: Thank you.

1:47

Sarah Jane Weaver: It’s so nice to have you with us, especially during this time of year when everyone thinks about Christmas music, and, of course, then their thoughts go directly to the Tabernacle Choir. President Leavitt, why don’t we just start with you and have you talk to us about how music can be such an important part of celebrations and, when we think about the birth of the Savior, how music can take us there as well.

2:09

President Mike Leavitt: An unexpected pleasure of being called to be choir president is that during Christmas season, multiple days a week, my life is filled with the most glorious Christmas music you can imagine. And it is the Christmas season to me. I find myself feeling a sense of both inspiration and a sense of gratitude listening to music, and I know I’m not alone.

The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square perform during the First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

2:38

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m sure you also connect your Christmas celebrations with Christmas music, Karmel.

Karmel Newell: Absolutely. I can’t imagine Christmas without music. And honestly, I can’t imagine Christmas without the Tabernacle Choir’s music. I feel like they’re angelic, and their music is their mission, is their message. It’s just all wrapped into one.

3:00

Sarah Jane Weaver: President Leavitt, I think this is how so many people usher in the Christmas season for them. They say, “Let’s go downtown, let’s look at the lights and let’s hear the choir.”

President Mike Leavitt: Important to remember that this isn’t just a celebration for people in Utah. This is actually the recording session for our PBS special, which is literally played all over the country and all over the world. It actually won’t play until next year. It gives us some time to perfect it and to have the production at the highest possible level. But later this month, last year’s Christmas program will premiere. But what that says is that this is part of the Christmas tradition for millions of people. I can’t tell you how many times people will say to me, “Oh, the Christmas season has always included the Tabernacle Choir.” These are people who aren’t from Utah, may never have been to Utah, and who love the Tabernacle Choir.

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3:59

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you guys have so much coming up in the next year that also includes a worldwide audience, including a trip to the Philippines. Tell us about that.

President Mike Leavitt: 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. During 2023, we were in Mexico and had a delightful trip there. We performed live for almost 25,000 people, we had 500,000 people who watched the streamed version of our concert.

In February, we’ll go to the Philippines, and the Philippines will have three concerts, two at a very large arena that will feel, in terms of its proportion and the type of production we’re doing, like our Christmas special. In the past, the choir tours or travel assignments have been through many different countries in the same trip, appearing mostly at small concert halls. We’re now changing that and appearing in fewer places, but in much larger proportions.

Karmel Newell: I think the phrase we’re using is “anchor and radiate.” We can go to a place around the world and radiate from there, and from there and there and there.

Global participants with the Tabernacle Choir after April 2023 general conference.
The global participants are pictured with the Tabernacle Choir at the conclusion of the general conference on Sunday, April 2, 2023, in the Conference Center. From left to right, back row: Mack Wilberg, Ryan Murphy, Ronald Baa, Rodrigo Domaredzky, Alvaro Jorge Martins, Jonathan How, Michael O. Leavitt, Tubo-Oreriba Joseph Elisha, Gérald Caussé. Front row: Karmel Newell, Sundae Mae Indino, PeiShang Chung, Denisse Elorza Avalos, Thalita De Carvalho, Georgina Montemayor Wong. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

5:36

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I actually felt that. I was not assigned to go to Mexico City to cover the choir for the Church News. I had to watch it — as so many other people — remotely, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I want to talk about something else that shows the choir’s global reach. And this is the global participant initiative. Can you tell us what that is and why that is meaningful?

6:00

Karmel Newell: 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.

Right now, we have 44 global participants from 25 countries. So we’re combing all the corners of the world and finding these prepared and qualified singers who are joining from Nigeria to New Zealand, from Ghana to Guatemala — just wherever you can imagine that the Church is, we have singers representing those areas.

7:00

President Mike Leavitt: 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. So a choir of the quality of the Tabernacle Choir has to meet together about 150 times a year, in rehearsal and in performance, to maintain the highly professional polish that it has. That’s impossible if you’re drawing from around the world.

So we have developed a category of people, we call them global participants, who come at general conference and participate representing the global membership of the Church. And as Karmel said, these are extraordinarily talented people who meet every qualification of a member of the Tabernacle Choir. They work hard to prepare, and when they come, they fit right in. And, I might add, an enormously powerful spirit of brother and sisterhood with members of the choir who are there year-round.

8:11

Sarah Jane Weaver: I met some of them in April, when they came. We actually did a Church News podcast with them, which we will link to from this podcast. But I was so touched by their energy and their enthusiasm and their testimonies. At the end of that podcast recording, they sang for us, and we were so touched by their talent that we actually included it in the podcast, because we felt something right inside of us.

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And from that, I thought, “Isn’t this an interesting program?” because every one of those participants go home taking a little bit of the Tabernacle Choir with them. And that will influence the way they share music, wherever they’re from. And they also leave a little bit of themselves in their traditions and their cultures with the choir, who they’ve been associating with for all of those days. Tell us: Is that some of the magic that you anticipated would happen? Or is that just what happens when Church members associate together?

9:06 

President Mike Leavitt: We knew that the choir needed to represent — or, if you will, it needed to reflect — the global membership of the Church. And consequently, when they came, not only did they reflect that, they also began to enhance it. And one of the things that I think was a bit of a surprise to me is how much it means to people in the countries where they live, to watch general conference and see someone who both looks like them and with whom they relate because they come from their country. It is this sense of belonging that we all long to have with organizations and beliefs that we associate with.

9:58

Karmel Newell: For example, the members in the Philippines stayed up till 2 in the morning to watch their friends perform. Even though they could’ve watched the recording very easily the next day, they wanted to see it live, and they all gathered and cheered them on from far, far away at such an inconvenient hour.

Ten international guest performers pose with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square during a rehearsal at the General Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
Ten international guests performer pose with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square during a rehearsal General Conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 30, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

10:14

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that is really, really sweet. President Leavitt, you have also had some other things that you’ve focused on since becoming choir president. Tell us what those are and how those are coming along.

10:25

President Mike Leavitt: We established four basic objectives. The first was to reflect the global membership of the Church. And we’ve been talking about one way in which that could occur. The second is to be more visible in the world, representing a worldwide church. And hence, we’re doing a tour of the world over a four-year period of time. The trip to Mexico was part of it, the trip to the Philippines will be part of it, and we already have a number of other stops scheduled that’ll be announced later.

A third important part of our criteria was to harness digitization to be able to deliver our music throughout the world. So we’re working on a digital-first strategy, where most of the time, our music was consumed through records or CDs or whatever it would have been in the past. The medium now is streaming, so we’re working hard to build up digital assets that we’ll stream. We’re also changing the method of our performance. That is to say, in the past, most of our out-of-the-country visits have been oriented toward smaller concert halls. We’re now performing in much larger arenas where we’re able to put on productions that highlight not just our high degree of musicianship, but also the message that we’re providing.

11:49 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, I actually love that the world tour is called “Hope.” Speak to what you’re trying to spread and why that word is meaningful.

President Mike Leavitt: Well, it’s hope, but the source of hope is faith and faith in Jesus Christ. We are moving around the world, testifying in a way that we believe will provide a sense of not just hope, but healing and peace in a world that badly needs those attributes. Music does this in a way that very few mediums can. It speaks to us in a unique language, and it’s a universal language.

12:29 

Karmel Newell: It’s interesting you would speak of languages. As I was driving here, I listened to Elder [Gerrit W.] Gong’s talk [“Love Is Spoken Here”]. And he said there are more than 7,000 languages in the human family, and yet we all understand music, and it speaks to our hearts, and it unites us in such a powerful way. During some of the recent dark days of the Middle East conflict, on those very days when that was just beginning, we were auditioning members from the Middle East. And there was just this refrain of hope that I felt as we met with them, and as our missionaries engaged with them, I thought, “Through all this conflict, there will be peace. There will be peace on earth again someday.”

13:13

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I know I felt that way during the pandemic. It is really when I found Tabernacle Choir to be something that I could incorporate into my daily life. I had, for years, tuned in when I was available to the Sunday morning broadcast or to the annual Christmas concert or to concerts that happen in the summer. But it had never occurred to me before that, “Hey, this music can bless you every day.” And during that kind of dark time, I was on my phone, and then, you know, your phone dishes up like music. And suddenly I found that I could drive all the way into work and only hear the choir and how hopeful that was.

As you talk about digitization and availability of choir music, is this something that you hope people will engage in as part of their daily routine?

14:02 

President Mike Leavitt: It is. Now, it’s important, I think, to acknowledge that not everyone views the Tabernacle Choir as the genre of music that they want to listen to every day. I am a huge fan, but I have a number of other settings on my phone. But it is Tabernacle Choir music I go to when I’m looking for a sense of peace, when I’m looking to reflect; I need something specific. I believe that that’s true for most people.

I think if you were to put 100 people in a room who typically don’t listen to Tabernacle Choir music but had a specific need, if they listened to it during that period, they would find it as giving them a sense of peace. And so what we are looking for is a means by which we can deliver that sense of healing and peace to people when they need it and have it available when it’s something that plays an important part of their life.

15:04

Karmel Newell: Several years ago, when my son was on a mission in the Czech Republic, an unlikely fan — maybe, let’s say, someone who wouldn’t seem like your typical Tabernacle Choir fan — came up to him and said, “Thank you for your choir. It’s the only thing that stills my soul.” And I think it’s that way for a lot of people.

15:22

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, where can people find the choir music? Obviously, you have a website. I think you have some other channels. Can we talk about those?

President Mike Leavitt: I routinely tell people, if you’re looking for a streaming channel, all of the streaming channels will have access to the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. I’ve found Spotify has a high degree of accessibility. You can go to YouTube. Literally every streaming channel has access to it. It’s widely available, and we hope people will use whatever channel they use and just find our music.

15:59

Sarah Jane Weaver: And you have had, now, quite a bit of time behind you since taking over as president of the choir. I would love for you to share something anecdotal that has actually illustrated or played a role in your life, that showed you the power of the Tabernacle Choir or the power of music. You know, you’ve been in Mexico City. You’ve had a number of weekly broadcasts that would have had some significant guests. You’ve had one Christmas concert under your belt. Has there been a moment that you think, “Wow, this, for me, is what the Tabernacle Choir represents.”

16:37

Karmel Newell: An image that comes to my mind is in Mexico City, near the end of the concert, they sang “Cielito Lindo” with — the audience couldn’t help but joining in. I’m not sure if they were even invited, but they did. And pretty soon, the whole auditorium was filled with people singing the same song and waving their phones. And it was just this joyful, united celebration that burned a picture in my heart that I’ll never forget. It was precious.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square perform in the National Auditorium in Mexico City, Mexico
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square pose for a photo after performing in the National Auditorium in Mexico City, Mexico, on Saturday, June 17, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

17:02

President Mike Leavitt: I think those of us who have the privilege of working around the choir have these routinely. Some of them are in large audiences; others are very personal. One evening, I needed to speak with Mack [Wilberg]. And I knew the choir would be concluding its rehearsal. And I walked up to the stage in the Tabernacle and just leaned against the wall. And they were performing a piece of music that actually was to be used as background for a highly acclaimed singer who was going to join us. But their harmony was so sublime.

And the moment was so tender. As I just leaned against the wall, listening, the thought came to me, “When we pass from this life, we’re going to be greeted by music like this, because it lifts us out of this mortal state and lifts us to something higher.” And that moment has stuck with me, because I think it is at the heart of what music does. It brings that sense of peace. It brings us to an understanding of something that’s bigger than what we’re dealing with day to day.

18:26

Sarah Jane Weaver: You made reference to the fact that music is a universal language, that it can communicate to all people of all tongues. Elder Dale G. Renlund has also spoken about the Church’s need to share music in the language that people speak, in their language of their heart. And this year, you launched “Music & the Spoken Word” in Spanish. My understanding is that we’ll have it in Portuguese in the coming year. Tell us about how that’s going and why it’s so important to share the message of the choir in the language of people’s hearts.

19:03

President Mike Leavitt: I mentioned earlier that our mission statement had been amended to add the words “throughout the world.” An important part of the way we reach our audience in the United States is through a weekly television and radio program, “Music & the Spoken Word.” But very few people outside the United States can actually hear that, and those who can have had to essentially endure dubbing over the announcer, Lloyd Newell. And that detracts, really, from the beauty of the experience, and we’ve wanted to speak with them in their native language.

So we were authorized to begin offering “Music & the Spoken Word” in Spanish and in Portuguese. 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. 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.

20:13

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, with so much going on, it seems like there’s a lot of lessons that you may have learned in the past year that you can apply in the next year and in future endeavors. What are some of the things that you have learned this year that you think will make a difference in coming months and years?

20:33 

President Mike Leavitt: 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. 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.

21:23 

Karmel Newell: I’ve learned that this truly is the Lord’s work, that I need to be willing to even expect miracles. Sometimes with the visa work that’s involved with these global participants, things are complex and difficult. And if it were just up to me or up to any one person, it might not happen. But if I trust the Lord and let Him do His work, somehow it all works out and we keep seeing miracles. And I’m learning more to trust that and not to worry too much if it doesn’t seem to be going the way I think it could or should, that this is the Lord’s work and He’ll make it happen in the way that it needs to.

22:03

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I am sure you both think that just getting everyone from point A to point B with their musical instruments and everything that’s required to move so many people in foreign countries, I’m sure that you will need that in the Philippines this year, where traffic and weather and everything can be a little tenuous. But it is a beautiful sentiment to believe that the Lord is in the work.

And before we go to our last question, I’d love for you to each share your testimonies, especially at Christmastime. How has music helped each of you draw closer to the Savior?

22:44 

Karmel Newell: Music is very central to my testimony because I feel the Spirit so easily when I listen to sacred music. And I find myself in a more humble position when I’m listening to sacred music. And I find myself leaning more on the Lord and developing that sacred connection with Him. Music somehow — it lessens the gap. It helps me feel that closeness that I long for in a fallen world. It brings me close to Jesus Christ.

23:22

President Mike Leavitt: Music allows me to feel and to sense my life in the context of something that’s eternal, not simply every day, temporal, one activity after the other. I find that if I listen to sacred music, it’s much more attainable to think of my life in more eternal terms. 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.

24:11 

Karmel Newell: I keep thinking of something. When I first received this calling, I had this image come to my mind of when the Lord returns, that He would want a choir from all the different languages and all the different people, all the children He loves around the world. And I thought, “This is the beginning,” whether it’s, you know, centuries from now, but this is, I think, the beginning, this global participant program and these other initiatives to bring this throughout the world; to prepare the world for His return, to prepare for that glorious day when every knee will bow and the angels will sing along with the angels on earth, who we get to interact with regularly.

24:53

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I think that is a beautiful sentiment to start to wrap up with today. We have a tradition at the Church News podcast: We always give our guests the last word, and we always ask them the same question. And the question is: “What do you know now?” And so, let’s start with you, Karmel. We’ll end with President Leavitt. But what do you know now that you’ve learned from the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square?

25:18

Karmel Newell: I have learned that the Lord cares deeply about His children, that He loves them and He wants them to feel that love. And one of the ways that we can more easily access that love is through music. And I think that’s why He cares so much about it, because He wants us to feel His love. I feel it regularly when I am in their audience and their association, and I think that the Lord wants us to help His children everywhere feel that love.

25:50

President Mike Leavitt: I have come to appreciate more fully the uniting capacity of common beliefs. We live in a world that is divided in so many different ways — geographically, ideologically, politically. Karmel used a phrase earlier: “covenant belonging.” I’ve come to realize that what can unite us is a common belief in Deity, a common understanding that we are children of God and that we are, after all, brothers and sisters, in the sense that we are all human beings who have similar kinds of feelings, have similar kinds of hardship, have similar kinds of desires. And it’s that sense of common belief that can truly unite us.

26:50

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News executive 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, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; 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 channels or with other news and updates on the Church on TheChurchNews.com.

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