“Tabernacle Choir Tours Southern U.S. States: They ‘Brought Us Close to Heaven’” Ensign, Sept. 2001, 73–75
In June the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, accompanied by three Tabernacle organists and 21 members of the Orchestra at Temple Square, made its first tour specifically to the southern United States. Three chartered airplanes, 2 luggage trucks, 1 equipment truck, and 10 buses carried the group to its 11 performances in 8 cities and 5 states.
Besides performing in Houston, Texas, and Orlando, Florida, where the choir appeared in 1964 and 1989 respectively, it was the first time the choir had performed in any of the other cities on the tour, which included Fort Worth, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; and Tampa and Miami, Florida.
The tour also marked the first time that members of the Orchestra at Temple Square traveled with the choir and the first time in recent years the choir performed each concert entirely by memory. Singing from memory allowed the group to make eye contact with audience members throughout the entire performance. “They sing with their soul and their minds on the crowd,” said a Fort Worth choral director who attended a concert. “They embrace the audience.” An audience member in Tampa added, “Listening to the choir, I feel like I’m at the gates of heaven.”
The Southern States tour, which included preconcert receptions attended by local civic, religious, music, and Latter-day Saint leaders, received praise from local media, government, and the public:
“The signature arrangements of ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ were once more stirring. The setting of the spiritual ‘The Battle of Jericho’ was a virtuosic tour de force.”—Houston Chronicle
“The group wasted no time proving that their vaunted reputation is richly deserved. … [The] hallelujahs in ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’ rose slowly and powerfully until it rattled the very gates of heaven. It made the hair on the back of the neck stand straight up.”—Fort Worth Star Telegram
“Hearing the choir live was a dream come true.”—Bill G. Carter, Texas House of Representatives
“It was the most glorious night of music I can recall.”—Ed Bridges, director of Alabama State Archives and History
“To say it was an unforgettable experience is an understatement.”—Sam Rumore, president of the Alabama Bar Association
“When a group like this comes to town, it can really bring people together. Seeing and hearing the choir can clear up misconceptions of the Latter-day Saint faith.”—H. Roy Kaplan, executive director, National Conference for Community and Justice in Tampa
“It’s really fantastic to have a group like this come to Tampa. … I think we all felt a special connection.”—Dr. Joe Gonzalez, director of Tampa’s Ambassador Chorale
“It was a true honor to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in person—a moving experience.”—Ted B. Edwards, Orange County, Florida, commissioner
The choir’s repertoire for the tour included hymns, anthems, patriotic songs, and American folk music. Following are just a few highlights from the tour.
The choir’s 15 June concert in Houston was nearly canceled when tropical storm Allison caused heavy flooding in the downtown area, leaving the scheduled Jones Hall for the Performing Arts inoperable. Even after several days of frantic searching, only two nights before the date of the performance a new venue had not yet been found. The media began to announce that the concert had been canceled. “But we didn’t give up; we kept working to find a new venue,” said choir president Mac Christensen.
Just over 24 hours before the concert was scheduled to begin, a venue was found: Houston’s Reliant Arena (formerly the Astro Arena) was quickly transformed from a rodeo grounds into a concert hall. The choir’s performance provided a needed lift for the 4,000 attendees whose city had been ravaged by the floods.
Tickets for the next day’s performance in the 2,000-seat Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth sold out months in advance. Following one of the concert’s numerous standing ovations, choir announcer Lloyd Newell joked with the audience, “Don’t encourage them too much. They have a repertoire of 1,500 songs.”
As a special conclusion to the concert, the choir sang in Spanish, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” delighting the hundreds of Spanish-speakers in attendance. The same conclusion was also later performed at all three concerts in Florida.
In Birmingham, choir member Ken Wilks recalled how more than a century ago his great-great-grandfather had stood before a crowd intent on tarring and feathering Mormon missionaries in southern Alabama. His ancestor convinced the mob to turn away.
On 20 June, Brother Wilks also stood before a large Alabamian crowd, but the feeling was much different. Brother Wilks, along with his fellow choir members, received two five-minute standing ovations from the audience of 2,500 attending the concert at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.
Besides its regular concert, the Choir also recorded its weekly broadcast, Music and the Spoken Word, in Birmingham. John E. Enslen, a seventh generation Alabamian and second counselor in the Alabama Birmingham Mission presidency, says he believes the performances in his state will do much to change misperceptions about the Church.
“I feel as if a spiritual stone has been dropped in the center of the ‘pond’ of Alabama, and the ripples will move steadily forth, washing away longstanding prejudices,” said Brother Enslen. “My guests who attended the concert are still expressing how much it meant to them. One man said hearing the choir made him experience feelings he didn’t even know existed. Another couple later accepted our invitation to a ward activity, which I don’t think they would have done before the concert.”
Later in Tampa, fans filled the 2,557 seats at the Tampa Bay Performing Art Center’s Morsani Hall on 23 June. One local fan in attendance was Gail Wright, who began watching the choir’s weekly broadcasts a few years ago after she’d lost her mother and was suffering from chronic stress and depression. The music and uplifting messages buoyed Gail up, and during one broadcast she felt particularly drawn to one sister. “I can’t explain it exactly,” said Gail, “but I know the Lord led me to her.”
Gail sent a letter to the choir and eventually began a correspondence with choir member Karen Jepson. The two women quickly bonded; they shared their mutual faith in the Savior, and Karen taught Gail principles of the gospel.
“I’m not sure what I would have done without Karen’s encouragement,” said Gail. “Her friendship helped me hang on, and things have gotten so much better for me.” The two women met on the morning of the concert. “We hugged and cried,” says Sister Jepson. “We talked for a few hours.”
Gail and her husband, who were recently married, sat on the front row during the concert, after which she exclaimed, “I prayed that someday I would be able to meet and thank Karen, and now my prayers have been answered.”
On 25 June the choir played to a standing-room-only crowd in Orlando’s Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre. The 2,300 in attendance gave three standing ovations, which were answered with three encore numbers. “I wanted to stand up and applaud after every song,” said Katie Bravar, a 16-year-old member of another faith.
The day before the concert, the choir also performed twice in front of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World theme park. Hundreds stopped to listen and cheer for the choir’s rendition of several familiar American songs, including “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” On the Sunday prior to the concert, choir members divided into three groups and sang and shared their testimonies at firesides in three area stake centers. In total, 2,100 members and their friends attended the firesides.
“The choir and members of the Orchestra at Temple Square have truly softened the hearts and enlightened the minds of many of our friends in the Orlando area,” said Mason Herzog, a member of the Windermere Ward, Orlando Florida South Stake.
Perhaps the words of Douglas Stringham, a member of the Westin Ward, Fort Lauderdale Stake, sum up the tour best. After attending the final, sold-out concert in Miami’s James L. Knight Center on 27 June, Brother Stringham said, “We were the beneficiaries of a marvelous outpouring of talent and Spirit. The Choir on compact disc is wonderful, but the choir in concert brought us close to heaven.”