There has never been another birthday party like it — accomplished LDS musicians of international reputation, 21,000 guests, marvelous music, laughter and "happy birthday" led by Gladys Knight.
"I shall remember this occasion for the remainder of my life, and I hope that will be a long time," said President Gordon B. Hinckley at the conclusion of his 90th birthday celebration June 23 in the Church's Conference Center.
"What a birthday party this has been. I don't think there has ever been one like it before. I don't know if there will ever be one like it again — unless I can make it to 100."
President Hinckley hosted "An Evening of Celebration," featuring distinguished musicians, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square. His counselors in the First Presidency, President Thomas S. Monson and President James E. Faust, offered the invocation and benediction, respectively.
President Hinckley explained the party was not for him, but instead was his gift to those who have touched his life. "Tonight," he said, "is my opportunity to give something back to the community in which I have spent most of my life, and to the many wonderful people here and throughout the world who, for all of these years, have shown me kindness and touched me with their goodness."
Members throughout the United States, Canada and Latin America watched the program live, via the Church satellite system. The event, also shown live on KBYU TV in Utah, was rebroadcast to European stake centers June 24.
President Hinckley thanked those in attendance, including members of other churches, and expressed regret that more could not have participated. He then expressed appreciation to the accomplished musicians who have performed in the great theaters, concerts halls and assembly halls of the world and who have distinguished themselves before the most discerning audiences. All volunteered their time for the concert.
Michael Ballam, director of the Utah Festival Opera in Logan presented "Without a Song" from the musical Great Day, first performed in 1929 when President Hinckley was a sophomore at the University of Utah.
Stanford Olsen, who has appeared more than 150 times with the Metropolitan Opera, sang "O Danny Boy" — a song President Hinckley first heard 67 years ago while docked at Cobh, Ireland, en route to his mission in England.
Robert Peterson, a Broadway soloist, performed "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha."
"My life has spanned much of modern history, from 1910 when the average man or woman in America had a life expectancy of less than 50 years, to this wonderful turn of the century when, on average, we may expect to live more than 75 years," President Hinckley said. "It has been a fulfillment of 'The Impossible Dream.' "
Gladys Knight, a pop vocalist known throughout the world and recognized with three Grammy Awards; Ariel Bybee, who performed 18 consecutive seasons in more than 400 roles at the Metropolitan Opera; Jenny Oaks Baker, a member of the National Symphony Orchestra and daughter of Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve; Vanessa Ballam, former Miss Utah; Jerold and JoAnn Ottley, former director and voice coach of the Tabernacle Choir; and Robert C. Bowden, retired director of the former Mormon Youth Chorus and Symphony, were also part of the celebration. Craig Jessop, Tabernacle Choir director, and Mack Wilberg and Barlow Bradford, associate directors, took turns directing the choir and orchestra. Piano accompaniment for some of the selections was provided by John Fluker and Lawrence Gee.
Sister Bybee said that President Hinckley personally invited the soloists to perform on the program and requested the musical selections.
"President Hinckley proved how important good music is to him by putting on an evening like this," she told the Church News. "It raised the standard of excellence for live music, for good music, in the Church."
Sister Baker said she felt blessed to be a part of the performance, as did the other artists who love the Church and have a deep respect for President Hinckley. It was an extraordinary event, she said.
One of the lighter moments of the evening came as President Hinckley, with characteristic wit, introduced Gladys Knight. "She once told me that she enjoyed everything about this Church except the music," President Hinckley said, recounting his first meeting with Sister Knight, who joined the Church Aug. 11, 1997.
Later, at the conclusion of the program, Sister Knight walked with President Hinckley to the podium.
"President Hinckley," she said, "if it is OK with you I would like to clarify something. I love the music of this Church as I love this Church. It is just that I knew when I came I may have a little withdrawal, because of the foot stomping and hand clapping that I am used to."
Sister Knight called it an honor to perform in front of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and with the other fine LDS musicians during the program — which had neither dull nor raucous moments. "My heart is happy," she said, "because we met in the middle tonight."