BETHEL, N.Y. — Thundershowers threatened to wash out the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, and a comparison was compelling as a daylong drizzle developed into a downpour by the time the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square presented a Saturday evening concert about a mile from the 37-acre farm field where the iconic rock music event was staged.
Showers kept away about a third of the anticipated 2,500 choir and orchestra concert attendees at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a 9-year-old complex deep in the Catskills, comprising a performance pavilion, museum and a monument marking the site of the three-day festival that took place Aug. 15-18, 1969, on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm.
Yet the intrepid performers and audience braved the cold, showers and gusty winds that at times almost blew the sheet music off the stands of some of the orchestra members. There was a connection, with the choir and orchestra providing a polished performance and the audience responding with exuberant applause and standing ovations.
In the parlance of the ’60s, one could feel the love.
Greeting the crowd, the choir’s radio and TV announcer Lloyd Newell remarked that he had been to the museum that day and was reminded that it rained at Woodstock, “so somehow it seems appropriate that we have some rain this evening, and I am confident that the music of the choir and orchestra will warm your hearts.”
After intermission, a jovial Newell, alluding to the famous recording by Woodstock performers Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, dead-panned, “By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong. And I can see you’re bundled up. You’re prepared!”
Music director Mack Wilberg and associate director Ryan Murphy led the choir and orchestra through a selection of masterworks, folk-inspired melodies, hymns and popular show tunes.
Audience favorites were two African-American spirituals presented by Alex Boye, a former choir member and recording artist in his own right, and a solo by one of the three organists, Richard Elliott, incorporating elements of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Tiger Rag.”
Just before a performance of the choir’s signature song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a staple in its performances over the years, Newell invited military veterans to stand and be recognized.
The performers answered two encore demands, the last of which, “This Land Is Your Land,” was conducted by Elder Larry Wilson of the LDS Second Quorum of the Seventy.
During an afternoon sound check, guests of choir and orchestra members on the tour visited the museum and gift shop. Some viewed the site of the 1969 festival with its green hillside overlooking a flat area where the stage was set up.
“After the festival in 1969, there was a lot of suggestion that there would be another Woodstock here,” said museum director Wade Lawrence. “Every year the fans would congregate without any advertising, and there were impromptu celebrations just about every August.”
One year, property owners were so fed up with it, they spread chicken manure over the field to keep people from gathering.
In the mid-1990s, the Allen Gerry Foundation, to keep the property from falling into developers’ hands, bought some 2,000 acres encompassing the Woodstock site without a clear intent of what to do with it. For a couple of years, the foundation hosted some concerts on that field.
“They realized that concerts on the site were a big draw and the vibe of the place was still here,” Lawrence said, “but the logistics of that field are difficult. Power, water, crowd control — all of the amenities were missing.
“So they developed Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, with that wonderful world-class music pavilion. They hired the best architectural team, the best planners and they built a world-class facility.”
The museum opened two years after the concert pavilion, and its exhibit about the Woodstock festival is a worldwide draw, with concert attendees coming mostly from within a three-hour radius.
“One of the most fun things about being here is that the people who were at the Woodstock festival come back as a pilgrimage,” Lawrence said. “They did it before Bethel Woods was built, and now that the museum and the concert venue is here, they have even more reason to come back.
“And we hear their stories. A lot of them have a familiar ring and are similar — being caught in the traffic, their favorite bands, not having enough food to eat — but to a person just about every one of them comments on the spiritual feeling of the crowd at Woodstock, how everyone loved one another, respected one another.”
Medical reports showed no injuries caused by human contact among the crowd, “which is phenomenal for three days in a city of half a million,” he said.
Among the Woodstock alumni was Duke Devlin, who at age 26 hitchhiked with a friend from Texas to the concert site, having learned of it through fliers distributed on college campuses.
“As a matter of fact, he and I got separated out here at the end of the road, and I haven’t seen him since.”
But Devlin stayed on. He landed a job at a dairy farm hoping to make enough money to get out of town. But he married a local girl and made his home in the area. Today, the bewhiskered 72-year-old is a site interpreter at Bethel Woods, supplementing his encyclopedic knowledge of Woodstock with personal memories and impressions.
“The sense of community that we all had here was really like, ‘I am you and you are me.’ We cared for each other. Everybody was expecting the worst. Even the people in this area were expecting lawless people, which didn’t turn out to be that way.”
One of his memories was when the farmer who owned the field, Max Yasgur, got on stage and welcomed the attendees.
“He God-blessed us all for being here and he made a little speech and made us feel it was wholesome. I got to know Max after the show, and he was just a wonderful man.”
Did Devlin ever think the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would perform on the premises?
“I had never heard of them,” he said. “If I did, I probably wouldn’t be too interested back then. But today, I’m more mature and I understand. Just like when we opened up here the very first time, we had the New York Philharmonic. They gave me a very nice seat, a primo seat, I thought, ‘Do I have to sit through this?’ Well, as soon as they struck up the band — and that was the first song they came up with, ‘Strike Up the Band’ — I was thrilled by them. Which I’m looking forward to tonight.”
Museum director Lawrence said of the Tabernacle Choir and orchestra appearance, “Woodstock was about expression, and what’s more expressive than a several-hundred-person chorus singing what they feel inside? That’s what music is about, that’s what creativity is about. I couldn’t be happier.”
He said he overheard someone say the performance would have even greater force than the music at Woodstock. “In other words, I have a feeling it’s going to be one gigantic wall of sound, it’ll be heavenly music and it will blow us away.
“That sounds like Woodstock to me!”
The Bethel Woods performance was the second stop on the choir’s two-week Atlantic Coast tour, which continues this week in Saratoga Springs, Yankee Stadium, Carnegie Hall, and ends next week at the Wang Theater in Boston.