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New Mormon Tabernacle Choir president aspires to young adult playlists

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My first feeling was shock. Then I felt gratitude for the opportunity. And then I felt the weight of the assignment. Having served with President Christensen, I had some idea of what I was being asked to do.

Ron and Lucie Jarrett were 13 months into what was supposed to be a 23-month mission in Europe for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when the phone rang with a call that changed their lives.

On the other end of the line: LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.

“He called me to serve as the president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” Jarrett recalled. “I was stunned.”

Not that working with the world-renowned choir was unfamiliar territory for Jarrett. He sang in the choir from 1999 until 2008, and then served as an assistant to former choir president Mac Christensen from 2008 until May 2011. But when he and his wife accepted a call to serve a public affairs mission for the church in Europe, assigned to the area office in Frankfurt, Germany, he felt his official association with the choir was over.

“I had not planned on this,” he said while seated in his comfortable new office in the lower level of the Salt Lake LDS Tabernacle. “I thought I had reached the end of the Tabernacle Choir chapter of my life. But now it looks like we’re taking that chapter and turning it into a book.”

Still, it was difficult to leave Germany, where he and Lucie were enjoying the public affairs training they were doing in 10 different countries.

“Being there was just wonderful,” Jarrett said. “It was a dream come true for Lucie and I. But when the prophet calls, you do it.”

It helped that President Monson understood what he was asking.

“President Monson was very sympathetic,” Jarrett said. “He said, ‘I know how hard it is to leave Germany. Just ask President Uchtdorf.’ ”

The church president was referring to his counselor in the LDS First Presidency, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who lived most of his life in Germany prior to his call to full-time church service.

For Jarrett, the call to replace Christensen, who retired as choir president in August, elicited three very specific — and very different — responses.

“My first feeling was shock,” he said. “Then I felt gratitude for the opportunity. And then I felt the weight of the assignment. Having served with President Christensen, I had some idea of what I was being asked to do.”

He glanced around the office and smiled. “Of course, I only knew a small part of what President Christensen actually did as choir president,” he said. “Now I appreciate his great work even more.”

The Jarretts returned to Salt Lake City from their European mission 10 months early, in time for Jarrett to assume his new duties in August. Technically, he is a volunteer, which means he doesn’t get paid for the time he invests in overseeing choir activities. But he works long days planning and strategizing choir tours and performances, dealing with choir business issues and attending rehearsals and broadcasts.

“Lucie and I went from being full-time companions to being no-time companions almost overnight,” he said, chuckling. But he said his wife and three children have been “extremely supportive” of his new assignment, even though “it does take time away from the family.”

A retired elementary school teacher and principal, Jarrett is the first former choir member to serve as choir president, a role that has traditionally been held by men with a business background. With his typical optimism, he sees his past involvement as a choir member as an advantage.

“I know what it’s like to sit in those choir seats and give of yourself through your music,” he said. “I have felt the fatigue of a long choir tour. I know how it drains you physically, spiritually and emotionally. I want to make sure everything we do helps them use their talents to reach out to our audience. I never want to lose touch with what choir members are experiencing. I never want to take for granted the sacrifice they are making to be in the choir.”

Jarrett says he has “tremendous respect” for the history and tradition of what he calls “the Lord’s choir.” But while he wants to support and build upon the “great, masterful, articulate” work done throughout the choir’s 165-year history, he is also interested in moving the choir forward in new and different directions.

“We’re still growing, and we need to grow,” he said. “We’re going to expand and reach out to every person we can possibly reach through our music. We’ve got to explore the opportunities available to us through the Internet, through improved satellite communications and through … I don’t know … all of the possibilities that are out there.”

And that may mean expanding the 360-voice choir’s musical mix, which has traditionally drawn from the sacred, classical, folk, popular and musical theater genres.

“I want to be on the young adult playlist,” Jarrett said, his face and body alive with energy and enthusiasm for the subject. “They want fun music, exciting music, uplifting music. We’ve got to find ways to reach young people musically.”

So can we look forward to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” being sung to the accompaniment of the Beatboxers at Temple Square?

“We may not be ready for hip-hop,” Jarrett said, smiling. “But if we can find something with a beat, some folk music, something that will be positive and motivating, we ought to take a look at it.”

And how does Mack Wilberg, musical director for the choir, feel about that?

“He told me he’d keep an open mind,” Jarrett said.

The objective, he said, will always be to keep the choir moving forward in its mission to lift people’s souls through music.

“We exist to carry the hope and tradition that the international language of music offers to all cultures, all ethnic groups, all generations throughout the world,” Jarrett said. “Good music, beautifully presented, makes you feel something. It touches the heart in a way that nothing else can. The love and hope that music brings can make your life better.”

And that, he said, is what the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has always been about — and will always be about, as long as he has anything to say about it.

“The choir exists to bless the lives of people,” he said. “My job is to make sure we’re exploring every opportunity to share the blessing of Mormon Tabernacle Choir music with the world.”