Sweet Harmony: Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus

“Sweet Harmony: Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus,” New Era, Mar. 1981, 21

Sweet Harmony:
Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus

When the music gets going, it’s hard to hold the audiences down. Feet start tapping, heads bobbing, and children patting out rhythms on their chairs. Music warms the hall and pulls people into the imaginative worlds of lost loves, of Luke Skywalker, of Sleeping Beauty and Spanish flamenco dancers. The concert closes too soon; the audience yells, whistles, shouts “bravo” and “encore”—and the group does another number or two.

Whether bouncing through the energetic “Stars and Stripes Forever,” jiving to “Disco on the Danube” (a contemporary version of a Strauss waltz), floating a romantic medley of Barry Manilow’s hits, or peacefully performing “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus works a special magic on its audiences. Part of the spell is the music itself—but even more, what is communicated through the music. This is no ordinary performing group, as audiences are quick to understand.

“I’ve heard the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony play this piece, but I’ve never listened before with tears in my eyes. Can you tell me why?” asked a member of the Music Educators Conference who had just heard Mormon Youth perform “The Pines of Rome.”

“The young people in the group are not only superb musicians, they radiate goodness,” said one nonmember at a recent California concert. “It makes me wonder, who are these young people?”

Well, they’re law students, medical students, high school and college students, bank tellers, electricians, gardeners, teachers, florists, printers, accountants, and many other people between 16 and 30 years old. Some are single, some married, and all 375 are excellent musicians. And most important, they want to share their testimonies through the music they perform.

“When you join, you know that you’re in the group for more than just musical reasons,” said Kevin Call, principal violist who’s soloed in the Tabernacle with the group several times. “My motivation for joining is to use my music as a missionary tool.”

Janice Call, who sings with the chorus, agrees. “When you’ve put on a good performance, you can feel the Spirit so strongly. You feel like you’ve developed your talents for a good reason, and that you’re in the group for a purpose—to help people get closer to the Lord.”

“It’s difficult to describe the exhilaration you feel when you’re performing,” said Kathy Broadbent, whose three sisters have also sung with Mormon Youth. “I guess the only way to describe it is, I just love my Heavenly Father and feel so warm inside to know that I can do something for him and am using a talent he’s given me. We’re touching people with the music, and that’s something I think he would have me do.”

It’s hard to measure the impact of the group. Letters pour into the Mormon Youth office monthly asking what makes the group so unusual and asking for more information about the Church. And the impression the group gives of the Mormon Church can only be measured by attitude changes—and converts.

One woman who was asked never to return home after she joined the Church convinced her mother to attend one of the concerts, and her mother’s attitude toward the Church completely changed. “I’ll be able to go back to my home now,” said the daughter. Another man who had been investigating the Church for three years decided to join after hearing the Mormon Youth perform in Sacramento, California. And another couple in Modesto, California, said they were so affected by the spirit at the two Mormon Youth concerts they attended that they decided to join the Church.

The influence of the group has an international appeal, too. A Mormon Youth Christmas special was the first LDS programming to be allowed in France, and after it aired, three more programs were requested. A segment that aired on Norwegian television opened countless doors that had previously been closed to the missionaries in Norway. The Bicentennial special that aired in the U.S. on July 4th came in third in the ratings nationally, and prompted a wealthy New Yorker to offer to send the entire group to Russia to tour. And the stories of how the group has touched people and helped with missionary work go on and on.

“With our weekly radio program alone we reach a potential listening audience of 144 million in the United States, Canada, and Europe,” said Robert Bowden, conductor of the group (and guest conductor of the Boston Pops when he lived in Massachusetts). “We also do 20 concerts a year and usually one or two television specials. In fact, we just won a regional Emmy for one of them.”

With such a busy performance schedule and only one rehearsal a week, the musicians need to be a dedicated lot, he added. That’s one reason being a member of Mormon Youth is a Church calling.

“Mormon Youth is not a social organization but a working organization,” said Brother Bowden. “I tell people auditioning that if they want to join for social reasons, they’re in the wrong place. We’re working for the Church and the missionary program.

“Often we’ll rehearse the music one Saturday morning and record it the next. It takes a top player or singer to do this, one who sight reads well, too. I marvel at what this group can do. They know they’re serving the Lord, so they want to be as professional as they can.”

When the group is touring, the challenges are varied. Usually they’ll have at least one performance a day, and between travel, standing in lines for food, and getting little sleep, it can be quite a wearing experience.

“You have to learn how to be discreet while yawning on stage,” said one musician.

“The hardest part of touring is that we get so tired,” said Linda Taylor, an alto. “There isn’t really time to relax. But when you perform, all the inconveniences disappear. Every time we sing ‘I Know That My Redeemer Lives’ I get chills all over.”

Meals are often served in ward cultural halls or provided by host families, or the musicians fend for themselves in the cities they visit. “You can’t just walk into a restaurant with seven busloads of people,” said Ray Furgeson, president of the group. “It takes a lot of planning long before we go on the road.”

Staying with host families is one highlight of a tour. “The sightseeing is fun, but to me one of the best parts of touring is staying with the LDS families,” said Jim Lamoreaux, a tenor. “They take you in like you’re one of their kids and roll out the red carpet for you. When you leave it’s like you’ve known them all your life.”

As always, the group weaves its particular magic while on tour, just as on the home front. At the end of the California tour last summer, the seven bus drivers (some LDS, some not) gathered together and addressed the group. “We’d like to thank you for the privilege of traveling with you,” said their spokesperson. “We have enough roses for each of the girls, just to tell you thanks for being such a great group.” And 14 dozen roses were presented to the young women.

“Music is a very powerful force,” said Brother Bowden. “How many times have you gone to Church, and because of a musical number or hymn, tears have come to your eyes? It can be a force for our Heavenly Father, though some music can be a force for the devil. You have to be careful about how you use music.

“These young people have decided how to use their talents, and have caught the spirit of what they’re doing. They can take a piece of music and do more than I could ever expect them to, because they have the spirit of what’s going on. You can feel it in the audience—a hush—and you realize the people are feeling the music and saying, ‘My goodness, listen to that!’ It’s exciting to be a part of that.”

And undoubtedly each member of the group would agree. That’s why some of them didn’t mind the year and a half waiting list to get in. Or why they all sacrifice Saturday mornings for rehearsals when the ski slopes whisper gentle little enticements.

“When I think of the happiness that playing with Mormon Youth has brought me and the people who listen and how blessed I am for the privilege of playing with the symphony, it fills my whole soul with so much joy. For me, walking that path is a step toward heaven,” said Steve Duncan, percussionist. “The sacrifice and long hours are really worth it.”

Photos by Jed Clark