It began in 1968-69 as a "modest dream," according to its first director, but the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus organization this year observes its 20th anniversary and looks back on an illustrious history.
"The Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus has certainly transcended that early vision," reflected Jay E. Welch, director from 1968 to 1974."The original projection for Mormon Youth was very modest," Welch said in a Church News interview. "It was to be a temporary organization that would meet together and make a few recordings. It was a very modest dream. But after we got started it turned out to be much more viable and powerful than we imagined."
Welch's assessment is supported by the numerous concerts, recordings, and television and radio programs that have been presented by the symphony and chorus, as well as the many awards the organization has won during the past two decades.
Mormon Youth was the brainchild of Lamar S. Williams, formerly of the Missionary Department. In 1968, he was producing "Sunday Evening on Temple Square," a radio series featuring sermons from Elder Sterling W. Sill, then an Assistant to the Twelve, supplemented by music from the Tabernacle Choir and selected soloists.
Williams conceived the idea of having a group of young musicians and vocalists make a library of recordings for the program. His idea was supported by Welch, who at the time was assistant Tabernacle Choir director. Over several weeks, Williams proposed it individually to some of the General Authorities as he would see them during the course of the day in elevators and hallways. Later, the Church leaders as a body considered and then approved the idea.
An announcement in the Church News on Sept. 14, 1968, gave the details: the chorus was to have 200 voices and the symphony 95 pieces. Mormon Youth was to serve "as the musical basis of weekly radio and television programs circulated by the Missionary Department to some 455 stations throughout the nation and foreign countries" and was to have two purposes: "to draw on the talents of young musicians in the Church who are in the pre-professional stage of their artistic development," and "to offer them valuable ensemble and soloistic training."
The announcement prompted more than 500 applications from high school and young college-age musicians, Welch recalled. "We spent November and December of 1968 auditioning singers and instrumentalists. The first rehearsal was in the Tabernacle on Saturday, Jan. 25, 1969."
The young people lacked polish at first, but their talent and reading ability was remarkable, Welch recalled.
Originally, the age group was roughly from 15 to 19 years. As it evolved over the years, the age group shifted to about 18 to 30. Williams said it was found that voices and musical ability were more stable and blended better if the young people were a little older.
Mormon Youth increased quickly in fame and stature. Within two or three months the symphony and chorus began to make sound recordings, Welch said. By 1970, the symphony and chorus videotaped "Caroling, Caroling," a Christmas television program, responding to encouragement from producers at the Church-owned KSL Television.
The TV special was aired not only by KSL, Welch said, but also by stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, responsibility for the organization was transferred from the Missionary Department to the Mutual Improvement Association. In time, it would be placed under the Church Music Division, with an organizational structure parallel to the Tabernacle Choir.
Other television specials followed, produced as cooperative ventures between KSL and KUED, the public television station at the University of Utah, where Welch was on the faculty. By 1971, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) executives contacted KUED proposing nationwide broadcast of the programs over their network.
The TV specials included a 1972 tribute to Howard Hansen in which the renowned composer himself directed the symphony and chorus, a 1973 tribute to George Gershwin, and a 1974 "Rachmaninoff Festival."
Welch fondly recalled that in 1974, PBS conducted a survey among managers of its 280 member stations asking which progams had been the best received and which they would like repeated. The Mormon Youth specials came in third, behind two acclaimed PBS programs, "Evening at Pops" and "Masterpiece Theater."
In July 1974, Welch succeeded Richard P. Condie as Tabernacle Choir director. Two months later, Robert C. Bowden assumed the Mormon Youth baton. Bowden had returned to Salt Lake City from Boston, Mass., where he had been a conductor at the New England Conservatory of Music and had been guest conductor and arranger on several occasions with the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra.
With Bowden at the podium, Mormon Youth continued to present at least one television special a year until 1984. From 1979 to 1984, the symphony and chorus were part of a radio series, "You and Your World," featuring sermons from Elder Paul H. Dunn, now an emeritus General Authority, and later from Elaine Cannon, then Young Women general president, and Elder Robert Backman, now of the Presidency of the Seventy.
From 1978 on, the tour schedule of the symphony and chorus expanded, with trips to Southern California in 1978; Reno, Nev., and Northern California in 1980; Mesa, Ariz.; in 1984; San Diego, Calif., in 1986; and Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pa., and New York, N.Y. in 1987.
Asked in an interview about the most significant accomplishments, Bowden readily mentioned the winning of a regional Emmy Award in 1980 for the 1979 TV special, "Christmas World."
The symphony and chorus had already done three Christmas specials earlier in the 1970s. Bowden was anxious to make a different kind of show. What resulted was a program focusing individually on several countries of the world, showing people, scenes, music and traditions in each country. Included was Israel, where most of the population does not celebrate Christmas.
"But they do celebrate Hanukkah in Israel," Bowden said, "and I felt we shouldn't leave them out. We featured a Jewish rabbi on the show, telling about the traditions of Hanukkah." Because of that inclusion, Israel was one of the many nations where the program was broadcast over national television.
The 1984 TV special, "Carnival of the Animals," also stands out in Bowden's mind as a significant achievement of Mormon Youth.
Much of the program, now sold on home videocassettes has cartoon animation. Because of that element it has much wider appeal, particularly among children, Bowden said. It has won eight awards, more than any of the other Mormon Youth specials.
Beyond the professional achievements and acclaim, less tangible rewards come often, the director said.
"When we performed in San Deigo, one of the concerts was aboard the USS Ranger aircraft carrier," he recalled. "After the concert, this battle-hardened Marine came up to me with tears in his eyes to thank us for the concert. I've dealt with Marines and I know that mentally, they are the toughest people in the world. But somehow, we got to him."
When the symphony and chorus played in Philadelphia for the Constitution Bicentennial, the largest audience of that summer's festivities came to hear them. Bowden was informed that the concerts had done more for missionary work there than could have been done in six months of missionary tracting.
"Those are the highlights for me as conductor," he mused.
Membership in the symphony or chorus does not come easily. "Besides a high degree of technical training," Bowden said, "the members have to be able to sight read. Every member has to have a bishop's recommend, and the recommends have to be renewed every year."
Christmas time is a high point for the orchestra and chorus as they are featured at the annual lighting ceremony on Temple Square, annual Christmas concerts, and an annual Christmas carol "Sing-In." For this year's sing-in, scheduled for Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m., former members - now number 3,500 to 4,000 - have been specially invited to come and take part in observance of the anniversary. The Sing-In, like most other Mormon Youth events, is free to the public.
Motivating Bowden and his young musicians is a sense of mission.
"Next to the Tabernacle Choir, Mormon Youth is one of the great tools for opening the hearts of non-members and even members to hear the gospel," he said.
"I tell the members of the symphony and chorus `You may not feel the spirit in rehearsal. There are times you will be yelled at, criticized or corrected. But if you pay the price and learn the music as you should, and come into the concert with the right attitude, you will feel the Spirit of the Lord take over.' And that happened so many times at our concerts. It is overwhelming."