San Jose, Sacramento and Reno: The Final Sprint
Today is the Sabbath day. It is also our last travel day—this time our destination is home! This morning in Reno we held an early morning sacrament meeting. Next, came a brief brunch, and then we hurried to the buses and were on our way. We are weary and anxious to return to our homes and families.
Though I have shared many experiences from our Northwestern Tour, I have had so many thoughts and feelings that I could probably continue writing for weeks. The other morning I realized I’d gotten too focused on my writing when I found myself thinking about how to describe the wimpy hairdryer in our hotel bathroom. But then I went to turn it off and discovered the switch was bidirectional—there was a “high” setting after all. Silly me! But I do not want to devote more time to writing after our return home. Once we pull into Salt Lake City, it will be time to turn our full attention to our families. And so I am combining our final three stops—San Jose, Sacramento, and Reno—into one last article.
In truth, one could describe any of the three days and pretty much describe them all. That’s not to say there was tedium in their sameness, but when you sing successive nightly concerts in different cities, the schedule is of necessity the same: breakfast, morning travel, lunch, hotel check-in, rehearsal/sound check, dinner, concert, sleep, check out. Repeat—then repeat once more. The only difference for San Jose was the absence of a hotel check-in. The return to the San Francisco Marriott made it unnecessary.
At all three concerts we sang to large, lively audiences. Attendance at San Jose’s HP Pavilion was 10,533. The Arco Arena in Sacramento was a near sellout at 12,056. (As we filed off the stage at Arco, a large group of missionaries in the balcony warmed our hearts with an energetic verse of “Called to Serve.”) Reno’s Lawlor Arena was smaller than the other two, but there were still 6,883 people who more than made up in enthusiasm for what they lacked in numbers.
Thoughts from a Fellow Singer
As was the case with Meredith Campbell in Portland, one of my compatriots has shared some thoughts about the concert in San Jose. Baritone Eric Huntsman is an Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. He sent this excerpt from the tour journal he is sending home to friends and family:
“From my perspective, there was …magic in the performance. Even though it was our sixth of nine performances and the program is getting very familiar, almost routine, as soon as we began singing the opening "Alleluia Fanfare" and "Praise to the Lord," I immediately began to feel that unique combination of performance excitement and the rush of the spirit that accompanies singing praises. Although I am missing my family greatly and am looking forward to getting home on Sunday, as we sang last night I thought that there was nothing I would rather be doing at that moment.”
“I gained a particular appreciation for the orchestra last night. Having a contingent of the Orchestra at Temple Square with us has certainly added to the power and beauty of our music, but looking down at some of the musicians (at least the ones seated near the director whom I could see), I realized that they were adding as much to the spirit and joy of the performance as the singers were. They play whole-heartedly and emotively, and because the program has become so familiar, it seemed that even though they are using music (the Choir has all of its numbers memorized), they were watching the conductors as intently as we were. I particularly noticed that Meredith Campbell, our concertmaster and first chair violinist, had a beautiful smile and a joyful expression on her face as she came in with the strings on each of her entries.”
“There are indeed many ways to worship. One of the things that Craig Jessop has talked about repeatedly is the importance of being unified in choral singing. It is an important musical skill, to be sure, but also a spiritual objective. In those wonderful moments when my own voice is completely lost in the swell of the Choir's sound and I can "feel" those singing on either side and behind me, I think of the Savior's great Intercessory Prayer:
That feeling of being part of a greater whole is one of the most powerful things about singing or playing in the Choir/Orchestra. The oneness spoken of in the scripture is something for which all of us as Church members strive—in our families, wards, stakes, and in the Church as a whole. And it is when this ideal is most fully realized that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir/Orchestra at Temple Square begins to approach the heights that President Hinckley has asked us to set our sights upon.
“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us…” (John 17:20-21).
“Just as one functions most effectively in a family, friend, missionary, or pastoral capacity when one loves those whom he serves, those moments when I feel real charity and affection for my Choir mates as we sing are the moments when I feel the greatest satisfaction.”
Our concerts are fertile ground for insight and inspiration. If we had access to all of the journal entries written about this tour—whether by singers, instrumentalists, or listeners—we would have some way to gauge its total effect. Eric’s entry provides a glimpse. Below is a sampling of others I have received either personally for through the Choir.
From a member of the Church who gave tickets to some friends:
“The people we gave tickets to couldn't thank us enough. You can tell when people are looking for the right words to express gratitude, but just can't find enough, to feel like they've completely expressed themselves. ...As we left [one of them] said, "The hair all over my body is finally lying back down, it’s been standing on end the whole time."
From a lay Minister of Music for a local Slavic Church, who attended the concert in Portland:
“The Choir was beyond my greatest expectations. The precision, strength, agility and unity of the group was beyond reproach. I was impressed beyond measure by their ability to pronounce lyrics as one voice, by their instantaneous response to dynamic demands and most of all, by the definite distinction between men and women, as God created them. The men looked like men, and sang like men. The ladies looked like ladies, and sounded like ladies. They worked as a team, no competition. It was a joy to behold.”
“…But frankly, the most touching moment of all was ‘God Be With You Till We Meet Again.’ From a youth, I remember the congregations of our Church singing this moving hymn at the conclusion of the annual Feast of Tabernacles. There were few dry eyes, as we all knew that some of our beloved ones would die the next year, etc., and we would not again see them in this life. When the [Choir] sang this classic old hymn so touchingly, not only were my own eyes brimming with tears, I was brought back in time to the 1950's and 1960's when the thousands of us sang this song, fighting back the inevitable tears of parting. I would have driven to Portland just to hear them sing that hymn.”
From a Choir fan who attended the concert in San Jose:
“What can I say - it was absolutely thrilling. The ‘sports arena’ setting is not the ideal venue for musical performance, but the Choir and Orchestra did such a fabulous job that you forgot about it after the first note. I talked my husband into attending with me - he is not a big fan of choral music normally - but he also really enjoyed the concert. Thank you to all the choir members for all your dedication, rehearsal, and passion for sharing the music with us. Plus, it was all memorized! Well done!”
Here are some quotes that I have not yet shared from newspaper reviews of the concerts:
“…the discipline and musicianship of the all-volunteer ensemble was genuinely remarkable. Acutely attentive to Jessop and Wilberg's direction, they sang and played responsively and produced an almost eerily unified sound.” From The Oregonian. Click here to read the entire article.
“You walk into a Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert with certain expectations — the sound will be big, and the repertoire will be solidly crowd-pleasing. The choir hit pay dirt on both counts Saturday night …its members gave an appreciative Reno audience a big, warm hug.” From the Reno Gazette Journal. Click here to read the entire article.
So Many to Thank!
At our sacrament meeting this morning, President Mac Christensen paid tribute to all who have helped make this tour a success. Besides the Choir and Orchestra, there are so many who work just as hard but remain behind the scenes: our technical crew—sound, lights, staging...
...the organ technicians; the Church tour personnel who made everything run smoothly; the Church security people responsible for our safety; the staff of the Choir and Orchestra; our traveling physician, Dr. Richard Price and his wife; those who drove our buses and luggage and equipment trucks. The list goes on and on...
...but at the top are our amazing conductors, Craig Jessop and Mack Wilberg. They have been as dynamic and inspirational as ever.
Craig has an enthusiasm for choral music that is infectious. He is particularly good at expressing this love with words that paint vivid and memorable images. A recent example is what he has had to say about the African-American spiritual “Wade in de Water.” This piece is new to us—we learned it especially for the tour. Craig has told us how such spirituals often have double meanings. When the free Africans were first enslaved and brought to America, they were given the Christian religion. The stories of the Israelites came to hold special significance for them because they, too, had experienced the abuse and injustice of human bondage.
“Wade in de Water” refers to the story of the pool of Bethesda, found in the 5th chapter of John. The belief among the Jews was that, at a certain season, an angel would come down and “trouble” the water of the pool. When this happened, the first person to enter the water would be healed. The text of the spiritual relates the story of the pool: “God is gonna trouble de water!” it says. But for the slaves, this “troubled water” also meant the Ohio River. A person who could make it to the river could cross and escape to the free North. Craig brought the story to life by describing a vivid image of a father and mother, exhausted from working all day in the fields, pointing to the river and telling their children, “If you get the chance, go! Cross the river to freedom! We will follow you when we can! Go, children! Wade in de water!”
Craig recounted these thoughts many times over the weeks we rehearsed the piece. This, coupled with the intensity with which he directed our preparation, made us realize how much it meant to him. He continued to spend time on it at every rehearsal throughout the tour—always asking for more feeling and precision. Each night, immediately before our performance of “Wade in de Water,” he also shared the story with the audience. I don’t know if he ever felt that we did justice to his depth of feeling about this piece. But I do know that as a result of his efforts, the Choir, Orchestra and audiences now have a much deeper appreciation for African-American spirituals.
As for Mack Wilberg, I think the following quote from the review in the Seattle Times gives a perfect description of his contribution to this tour:
“It was evident by the second song that one of the big reasons this group remains so musically impressive is the arranging genius of associate music director Mack Wilberg, who was responsible for most of the music on the program. He has a flair for exploiting the trademark huge sound of the choir and at the same time, creating brilliant jewels of orchestration that knocked us all sideways. His touch was to be felt through the entire program, and it is heartening that the choir acknowledges his gifts so openly, bringing him out from the wings for a bow at the end.”Click here to read the entire article.
These are sentiments with which I am sure everyone associated with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square wholeheartedly agree!
After-concert Ice Cream
Before I conclude, I’d like to share one last funny story:
The afternoon of the concert in Reno, second tenors Alma Farnsworth and Doug Blackhurst were walking around our hotel when they ran across an ice cream shop. Given the Choir and Orchestra’s passion for ice cream, they knew there would be a lot of people interested in stopping by after the concert. Unfortunately, the shop’s closing time was such that it was doubtful we could make it. So they walked inside and asked if the store could stay open for a while longer that night. When they described our love for ice cream and how many people might want to come, they were asked if perhaps they could get us to come in waves. “Sure—like a tsunami!” one of them joked in reply.
To make the story short, Alma and Doug weren’t the last to stop in and make that suggestion. The store did indeed stay open and the word spread quickly amongst the Choir and Orchestra. The line was already long when I arrived at the store at 10:15 and I learned later it still reached outside the entry door at 11:30! Of course, we were really only consuming all that ice cream for medicinal purposes. There’s nothing better to soothe strained vocal chords!
And so, the thirty-seventh major tour by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—and the first to include a full ensemble from the Orchestra at Temple Square—has reached its conclusion. By the odometer on the bus, we have traveled some 3,200 miles in a grand loop beginning in Salt Lake City and circling through Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Northern California and back home through Nevada.
The Choir usually only makes a major tour every two years. Since I have now been a member for fifteen of my maximum twenty, I will probably only experience two more. This fact has been on my mind a lot this time, especially since the man who has stood to my left in the concerts—fellow second tenor John Horton—has been experiencing his last (he will retire in October).
On each tour there is one particular song that comes to have the most meaning for me. Perhaps because my time in the Choir is winding down, this year’s choice is “Thou Gracious God Whose Mercy Lends.” The melody, from Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, is unforgettable—especially as set by Mack Wilberg. But the words—written by American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes—are even more so. As my voice has mingled with those around me (and this time John Horton’s in particular), I have thought of this phrase, “Wilt thou not hear us while we raise, in sweet accord of solemn praise, the voices that have mingled long in joyous flow of mirth and song?” That mingling of voices recalls Eric Huntsman’s comment: “In those wonderful moments when my own voice is completely lost in the swell of the Choir's sound and I can ‘feel’ those singing on either side and behind me…” What better way to express such a feeling than “joyous flow of mirth and song?!”
And then there is this phrase, which encapsulates my feelings perfectly: “These brief, bright moments, fading fast.” Our concerts are indeed “brief, bright moments.” And what a joy it has been to bring these moments to the lives of the more than 70,000 people who have attended them. For those who are not members of our faith, we hope that these bright moments have provided a glimpse of the light that the Gospel has to offer. For we know that through this light there will truly be, as the song goes on to say, “stars [to] gild our darkening years” and “[a] twilight ray from holier spheres.”
Story by Robb Cundick
Pictures by Deb Gehris and Marene Foulger.