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Tabernacle Choir impresses fans close to home

A year ago, the Tabernacle Choir was on tour, drawing huge crowds in seven countries of Europe, performing in elegant concert halls and a magnificent basilica. This year, the singers have been performing close to home but, nevertheless, pleasing long-time fans and winning new enthusiasts.

On June 17, the choir performed in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. The next evening, June 18, choir members traveled to Manti, Utah, some 120 miles south of Salt Lake City, to put on a musical program in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the city's founding. The concert preceded the second night's presentation of the 33rd annual Mormon Miracle Pageant on the hillside at the Manti Temple.The musical programs of hymns, anthems, show tunes and patriotic tributes had historical significance: For the first time, all four directors of the Tabernacle Choir were together in concert -- Jerold Ottley, director; Craig Jessop, director designate; and newly appointed associate directors Mack Wilberg and Barlow Bradford.

Accompanying the choir at both locales were Tabernacle organists John Longhurst, Clay Christiansen and Richard Elliott.

The concert in the Tabernacle was performed with the choir in its familiar loft, the bannisters of which were draped with red, white and blue bunting. A huge floral arrangement at the center of the podium area featured a sculpture of a bald eagle, the ultimate symbol of freedom. The Tabernacle organ's pipes gleamed a visual reminder of history and tradition and its console reverberated an aural resonance of patriotism and spirituality. A brass ensemble complemented the venerable instrument.

Grace Austin of Salt Lake City was one member of the audience who reveled in attending the concert, sponsored by the Utah Chapter of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. Sitting in the balcony as close as anyone in the audience can get to the choir, she struggled to look into the faces of the musicians, but most appeared as a blur; macular degeneration has diminished much of her vision. She wiped tears from her eyes, nodded her gray head and tapped her feet in time to the music.

"My husband and I had been married nearly 54 years," she said. "He died a few days ago; we buried him yesterday. I came here to relax and find refreshment after spending several months as his care giver. I can't explain how much happiness and joy the choir brought into my life at this time of grieving." She met her husband, she explained, when they were in military service, so the patriotic tunes were especially meaningful, sort of a musical tribute to him and his life.

Asked what was her favorite part of the program, Sister Austin said matter-of-factly, "I liked all of it, every single number. It was all thrilling. But I'd have to say that nobody sings 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' like the Tabernacle Choir! By the time they finished, I had chills -- in this hot weather!"

From Sister Austin's expressions, one might surmise that if the concert had drawn an audience of only one, instead of the several hundred who attended, it would have been worth the performers' time and efforts.

At 7:30 the next evening in central Utah, the choir had as a backdrop the magnificent Manti Temple. Instead of the domed roof of the Tabernacle, it had overhead a canopy of blue sky. Its spotlight was the lowering sun.

Traditionally, the Mormon Miracle Pageant attracts up-wards of 20,000 spectators to a Friday or Saturday night performance. This year, thousands of people arrived early to hear the choir sing before the start of that evening's spectacle. (This year's pageant dates were June 17-19, 22-26. Please see June 12 Church News for a feature about the annual event.)

Lloyd Newell, who is the "spoken voice" of the choir, provided commentary for both concerts. In the Tabernacle, he spoke of the legacies of freedom, paid tribute to immigrants who built up a new country, and told of patriots and pioneers. He noted that the concert was held on the 46th anniversary of the uprising of German citizens in Berlin, on June 17, 1953, against nearly 40 years of totalitarian domination. He spoke of the refugees of recent conflicts and cautioned of the forces of evil that are working to undermine the moorings of the nation founded upon the principle of "In God We Trust."

In Manti, Brother Newell noted the contributions of early members of that community, such as William Fowler, who put words to an existing tune to create the hymn, "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet." He mentioned also Dan Jones, a native of Wales who was a devoted missionary to his people and who was elected the first mayor of Manti in 1851.

"You and your forebears have made a difference," Brother Newell told the audience in Manti. "As I look at this majestic, beautiful temple behind me, I can't help but think of those who went before us in this valley and their lasting service and sacrifice. What a great difference, what a contribution! We are all the better for Manti."