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Center Spread: Grand finale for Mormon Youth organization

SHARE Center Spread: Grand finale for Mormon Youth organization

A 30-year chapter in the cultural history of the Church will close on June 1, when the Mormon Youth Chorus and Symphony disband, making way for a new and different organization, as previously announced, with new leadership.

Three months after that, Robert C. Bowden will retire, having directed the chorus and symphony for all but the first five of its 30 years.These next two months won't exactly be a swan song for the Mormon Youth organization, more like a grand finale, a glorious concluding fanfare.

The centerpiece is a tour to Southern California the week of May 11-15. It begins with a performance at the Tuachan Amphitheater in St. George, Utah. In San Diego, the groups will perform on board the aircraft carrier USS Stennis for between 4,000 and 5,000 people including military personnel and families. The next evening, they will perform at the Marine base, Camp Pendleton.

It is the second appearance for the groups aboard an aircraft carrier; in 1986, they performed on the USS Ranger. Brother Bowden said his only regret is that past members of the symphony and chorus cannot go along on this trip and experience the missionary spirit that is such an integral part of it.

Two concerts will bookend the California tour: The annual Easter Concert in the Salt Lake Tabernacle will be April 16-17, showcasing the patriotic music that is being prepared for performances on the ship and at the Marine base. And the final concert in Mormon Youth history will be in the Tabernacle on May 21-22.

"It will consist of music that we've been remembered for, mainly," Brother Bowden said.

It will include such favorites as the classical "Pines of Rome"; popular pieces like "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "By George" (a Gershwin medley); religious music such as "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace" and patriotic selections such as "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "God Bless the USA."

It won't exactly be a "greatest hits" concert; that would take too long, the director said. Indeed, such a program would have to be representative of hundreds of performances, 37 recordings, 15 television specials and a radio series ("You and Your World") that have highlighted the three-decade history.

Quite a track record for a group with a rather tentative beginning. A notice in the Church News of Sept 14, 1968, "Young Musicians To Aid Missionary Program," announced the upcoming formation of a 200-voice youth chorus and 95-piece youth symphony centered in the Salt Lake Valley to serve the missionary program of the Church as the musical basis of weekly radio and television programs circulated by the Missionary Department. Applicants were required to be Church members in good standing, ages 15-25 for the chorus and 18-29 for the orchestra.

That initial Church News story didn't say so, but founding director Jay E. Welch recalled later in a 1989interview: "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." (Church News, Dec. 9, 1989)

Also, the age range soon shifted to about 18-30, and technically speaking, the word "youth" in the name became a misnomer. But by then, a following had been established, and fans cared little about the content of the name. In later years, the words "symphony" and "chorus" were transposed in the name to allow for the fact that certain older musicians were admitted to the orchestra. These were called "player-coaches" by G. Robert Ruff, the current president, designating their role in instructing the younger members.

In 1974, Brother Welch became Tabernacle Choir director and gave the Mormon Youth baton over to Brother Bowden, but not before the symphony and chorus had presented four public television specials, which quickly became perennial favorites.

Brother Bowden, as the new director, brought on board two professional musicians as assistant directors serving on a Church-service basis. Terry S. Hill has been assistant symphony conductor since 1976, and Paul B. Larson assistant chorus conductor since 1978.

He also asked for a president to direct and manage the business affairs of the organization. That role has been filled by Ray Furgeson (1974-85), Jack A. Aird (1985-88), William E. Zwick (1988-92), and G. Robert Ruff (1992-99).

Just after being set apart, Brother Bowden was disheartened when he was told that the organization was not to record or travel and was generally to maintain a lower profile than previously. But he soon succeeded in persuading Church leaders of the group's potential in furthering the missionary effort, and the policy was relaxed.

As a result, a string of triumphs highlight Brother Bowden's reminiscences, including, among many awards, the first Emmy ever to be won by a Church musical organization. It was for the 1979 TV special "Christmas World."

Other standouts include "Sing America" (1978) hosted by Burl Ives, and "Carnival of the Animals."

The latter, hosted by television star Gary Burghoff of "M*A*S*H" fame, was the only Mormon Youth special to contain animation. Producers considered it a prohibitively expensive element at the time in 1984. But the director insisted it was needed to make the production stand out from other performances of "Carnival" that had been done by other, more famous symphonies. As a result it drew the attention of the Walt Disney company, which purchased the rights to it for its cable television channel.

Occasional out-of-town appearances, such as the triumphal "We the People" tour of Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia in 1987 made many friends for both the Church and the symphony/chorus.

But it was Temple Square, the groups' home base, where the traditions were established for which many people will remember Mormon Youth. At Christmas time, these have included three performances: one for the Temple Square lighting ceremony, another at the annual Christmas concert, and a third at the annual Christmas Carol Sing-In.

The latter was a response to repeated urgings to do a "Messiah" Sing-In. Brother Bowden resisted because of the proliferation of such sing-along concerts of Handel's great oratorio. Instead, he conceived the idea of a sing-along with Christmas music. The first was in 1986.

"The first year we didn't even fill the floor of the Tabernacle," he said. "The second year we had the floor filled and a few in the gallery. Every year after that, we have packed the Tabernacle, and we've had to turn people away."

Another tradition is the "mini-concerts" begun in 1992, short presentations given for visitors who show up to listen in on rehearsals.

"The Temple Square people have told us these are among the best catalysts for having non-members come up and ask about the gospel," Brother Bowden said.

"And among the best sources of referrals," added Pres. Ruff.

One Sunday, when the Tabernacle Choir was on tour and the Mormon Youth Chorus was filling in for them in the Tabernacle, an usher suggested that Brother Bowden come back out on stage after the performance. He noticed that many in the audience had remained in their places, and almost all had tears in their eyes. They had sought permission to stay and meditate.

The missionary impact has been in evidence time and again. At a convention of music teachers, the groups performed "Pines of Rome." Afterward, a representative of a violin company approached Brother Bowden and said, "I've heard every major orchestra in the world play that piece, but explain to me what happened tonight. I don't understand the feeling that came over me while you people were playing that piece."

Brother Bowden recounted, "I looked down from the podium and replied, 'I could explain it to you, but I don't think you'd believe me.' It was the spirit of the gospel, the spirit with which these people perform that touches the hearts of people."

That spirit has gone far and wide. Pres. Ruff recalled: "Ken Beesley, former LDS Business College president, was going on a mission a few years back. I didn't believe him at first when he said he was going to open Outer Mongolia for missionary work. But he asked for some Mormon Youth recordings to take with him. He is back now. I talked to him about a week ago. He said those tapes were fantastic. He got them on some local radio stations and provided music in some areas where they didn't have music. They wore them out literally."

With 93 instrumentalists and 172 vocalists, the current lineup is only a small portion of the hundreds who have participated in the 30 years. Some are second-generation members.

Chorus member Ben Chapman related: "Jay Welch . . . encouraged members of the organization to meet, fall in love and get married. Many second-generation chorus members are a result of [Brother Welch's encouragement]. My father, Steve Chapman, was one of the original members of the chorus in 1969 when it was first formed with Jay Welch as conductor. My mother, Beverly, joined in 1971."

Another family connection was mentioned by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve as he spoke March 13 at the organization's 30th Anniversary Member Appreciation Banquet. (See related article.)

"I have five grandchildren I call my special Mormon Youth family," he said. "Their parents met in the symphony after both had returned from missions. My son, Dallin, played in your French Horn section, and an attractive young lady named Marleen May played with the violas. To make a long story short, they met at Mormon Youth, they married, they are now the parents of four sons and one daughter. For my family, that is a success story."

He also said that his daughter Jenny played in the violin section for many years and more recently was a featured soloist in a Mormon Youth recording, "Bravo!" (That recording, released last year, brought together instrumental and vocal soloists of ability and stature who have been featured in the concerts over the years, including George Dyer, Dian Baker, Ariel Bybee, Roger Drinkall and Robert Peterson.)

The apostle commended the organization, saying: "Your voices have invited the Spirit of the Lord into our [general conference] meetings. . . . With the miracles of radio, television and satellite transmission you have been the instruments of heaven throughout the world. The number of Latter-day Saints whom you have helped in worship and taught by example runs into the millions."

Elder Oaks said he was thrilled to hear President Gordon B. Hinckley announce "what I like to interpret as a graduation. Beginning this summer, the Mormon Youth Chorus will phase into a new choir, to be called the Temple Square Chorale, which will be a training choir for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The minimum age to audition for the Tabernacle Choir will be lowered from 30 to 25.

"At the same time, the orchestra has an equal or even more far-reaching change. It will be renamed The Orchestra at Temple Square and will accept all qualified musicians without regard to age. All three groups -- Tabernacle Choir, Temple Square Chorale and Orchestra at Temple Square will be united under one Church-service president and one full-time professional musical director.

"Only President Hinckley can define exactly how all of this will roll out to the benefit of the Church, but I think we can all be assured that he will take a keen personal interest in and personally direct the vital new roles he is outlining for both the Chorus and Symphony. You and I and all members of the Church will be blessed by this, because it will strengthen Church music generally."

Thus, one chapter ends and another begins.