clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Vai's View: Extra innings with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

PHILADELPHIA — The Mormon Tabernacle Choir just wrapped up an East Coast tour this week.

A few months ago, a choir representative contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in performing with the choir to help promote the tour. As a member of the LDS Church who is on local television in Philadelphia — one of its stops — tour organizers hoped to get some coverage.

I informed the choir rep I would be in Utah with my wife for April Conference, and the entire week after to visit our first grandchild.

We arranged for me to join the choir for its weekly Thursday rehearsal in the Tabernacle.

I had suggested that since the choir was visiting Major League cities like Philly, Baltimore, Atlanta, Boston and New York, they ought to sing something fun like "Take Me Out To the Ball Game." If they were lucky, the team's PR/events staff may just run it between innings, during a pitching change or the seventh-inning stretch.

The rep, Michael VonRosen, came up with the idea that choir members who have roots in those cities or a rooting interest in any of those teams, would wear a ball cap from those clubs. VonRosen made a trip to a local mall and retrieved hats for all those teams, including a Phillies hat for me. What was fascinating was watching how serious choir director Mack Wilberg is about music — even with something fun like "Take Me Out To The Ball Game." He made us sing it over and over and over and over again until we got it just right. Often, it was the pronunciation of certain words like "PARK," which for some reason sounded like "PAAAAK" — as if we were in Boston. There was a little laughter about it but otherwise the choir was clearly respectful and deferential toward Wilberg. At one point, he stopped the music and said, "No, No, No ... It's CRACKER JACK, not JACKS! It's SINGULAR, NOT PLURAL! CRACKER JACK. From the top." Mack Wilberg's attention to detail was fascinating.

The last time the choir visited our area was 2003 and Mack was the brilliant assistant to choir director Craig Jessop, who has since returned to academia at Utah State. At that time, I was the director of public affairs for the church in the Philadelphia region.

My multi-stake committee was in charge of organizing a pre-concert reception for dignitaries, whom we were responsible for not only inviting, but ASSURING they would come.

The committee included two big names: Glenn Beck, who had a popular locally-produced syndicated radio show in Philly that would soon catapult him to New York and make him a household name; and Tammy Reid, wife of Eagles head coach Andy Reid.

Glenn helped us secure some of the city's most prominent business leaders and worked with vendors who catered the reception. Tammy's contacts brought civic, political and sports heavyweights to the reception and concert.

Tammy also suggested something fun. "What if we sent the choir sheet music of the Eagles fight song, 'Fly Eagles Fly!'?" she said. "If they sang it as an encore, I could ask Andy to lead it."

I thought it was a brilliant stroke of marketing and PR. We sent the music, only to be told by then-church director of public affairs Bruce Olsen that the choir's music must be approved by the Music Committee, which I believe was chaired then by Pres. Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency. Olsen told me it's a tedious process and unlikely to happen.

I was surprised to get an email from Olsen a week later that it had been approved! Apparently, either Pres. Monson thought it would be fun or someone rushed it through committee and got it rubber-stamped.

Bottom line: The choir was rehearsing "Fly Eagles Fly" and would sing it in Philly. I arranged for the choir to appear live via satellite from Salt Lake the week before it started the tour on our morning TV program.

They sang "Fly Eagles Fly," but they didn't chant "E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!!" at the end, which I realized isn't on the music sheet but is something fans just added on their own. So, I told Jessop that it would be a major faux pas if they didn't do that in Philly.

They did it perfectly, even pumping their fists just as Eagles fans do. And Andy Reid led them. It was wildly successful. So much so that since '03, many of the local radio stations use a recording of it every year as "bumps" in and out of commercial breaks during the NFL season.

Despite the choir's rather austere, button-down reputation, as a group they were fun and playful with me at their rehearsal. The orchestra even played along as I "acted" out playing a violin and faked leading the music to an empty Tabernacle an hour before the choir arrived. The men's section was full of sports fans, including my cousin Sione Ika, the lone Tongan in the choir. Sione was a section leader in the BYU marching band when I was playing at BYU in the '80s, so it was a sweet reunion.

The piece we edited for my Philadelphia TV station was lighthearted and intended for a sports audience, who otherwise wouldn't be interested in the choir's performance.

I don't know if the publicity I provided helped, but I do know the choir's one-night concert in Philly was performed to a full house and I've read some of the comments from community leaders and opinion-makers who attended the pre-concert reception and the concert, and it was overwhelmingly positive.

The experience of "performing" with the choir — even in rehearsal — gave me a greater appreciation for their remarkable talent and the power of their music.

Do yourself a favor sometime this weekend, preferably on Monday after the fireworks. Pop into the CD player Mo Tab's signature song: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Or play it on youtube. Dim the lights. Then, crank the volume to 9 or 10. Works better if you have surround sound. Then sit back, close your eyes and appreciate the fact you don't live in a monarchy, as I did as a child. We can be anything our industry, education and hard work allows us to be. Let the power and majesty of the music and voices permeate your soul. Let it lift you. When it's over, express gratitude to your maker for the blessings of America!