September 21, 2018
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A night of high notes

  • 360 Mormon Tabernacle Choir members along with the orchestra are seen during their performance at the Green Music Center. Robert Grant

By: Irene Hilsendager
July 6, 2018

Dignitaries were milling about on the upper lawn of the Green Music Center enjoying refreshments and delicious hors d’ oeuvres with harp and flute melodies being played and attendees waiting for the call to enter Weill Hall for a night of melodious voices and harmonious instruments.

This, being the fifth stop of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s classic coast tour, was about to begin. The group came to Rohnert Park after concerts in Berkeley and Mountain View. After leaving Rohnert Park, they will head to Vancouver, BC, Canada and onto Seattle, Washington. The tour will wrap up July 2.

President Ron Jerrod thanked the crowd for attending with Susan Adams giving the invocation prayer.

Upon entering the hall, instruments were being tuned while the choir stepped into their places on three different balconies. The beautiful red gowns were a stark contrast to the walls of Weill Hall. The handsome male singers dressed in black suits with red ties, standing with straight backs were lined up on the opposite side of the building. 

The dream to sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir may seem farfetched; however, but it may not be so impossible. There are a few criteria that must be met. You must be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you must be between 25 and 55 years of age. You must live within a 100 - mile radius of Salt Lake City and serve with no pay. There are three phases. The final phase is the in-person audition with the choir music directors, which includes solo singing, testing vocal range and sight reading. Results for the auditions are sent by letter. If they pass, they will take part in a 16-week training course. Every Thursday night for the next 16 weeks, the choir school instructors will train the participants in all of the technics and near the end of the of the choir school, the singers take a final exam. Those that have passed will go every Tuesday for another 16 weeks to meet for rehearsals to prepare for a major concert. Following a successful completion of the concert and passing the final exam, participants will at last become members of the choir.

But as important as the singers, are the instruments.

The organ was quite amazing. Computer screens were all around the musical instruments. The choir takes its own organ on tour to ensure that there are choir sounds. There are very few traveling choirs that go with a full orchestra and a large organ. The organ is transported from one venue to the next by semi-truck with the other large instruments for the orchestra and staging equipment. The whole point of the tour is to connect with the audience through music. The concert brings a unique combination of organ and human voice. 

As soon as the crowd hushed and the first chair arrived in her place, Mark Wilberg, the musical director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir since 2008, stepped onto his platform and wielded the mighty baton. 

Voices, instruments and the banging of the forceful drums vibrated throughout the hall. It was time for the concert to begin. While listening and observing the movements of the orchestra, intrigue sets in. Why were the organists moving around? The first half of the concert was done without interruption and applause. During the duration with hand bells chiming, the three organists unobtrusively shift places. Elliot explains, “I go over and put my hands over Andy’s and he gets off the bench and goes over to Brian at the celesta, identifies where we are and Brian moves to the piano.”  It is quite a little dance they do.

When the choir goes on tour it is not a vacation as there is a 11-caravan bus ride from one stop to the next. Long before the orchestra and choir leave, there are months of preparations. The 291 singers for the choir’s complement of 360 must memorize all of the music for different programs for all of the designated stops. No sheet music separates the choir from the audience. The orchestra members arrive at the concert venue in the afternoon for a sound check so when Wilberg lifts his baton, he knows that the choir and orchestra are ready to perform. Wilberg also says, “If the hall and the audience is great, everyone is bound to have a memorable experience and since every hall is different, the acoustics are different and the audiences as well.”

The choir doesn’t specialize in one particular kind of music but is known for performing a wide variety, from classics to folk songs, hymns and patriotic and show tunes. From the Pilgrim Song to Cindy, an American folk song to Betelehemu, a Nigerian carol, with Via Olatunji and Wendell Whalum singing. What an amazing sound with popping drums and an udu. An udu is a plosive aerophone and an idiophone of the Igbo of Nigeria. In the Igbo language, ùdù means ‘vessel’. Actually, being a water jug with an additional hole, it was played by Igbo women for ceremonial uses. The gentleman that played it was fantastic.

The program closed out with a great rendition of “The Battle Hymn” of the Republic. A short pause and new director took the platform. Steve Falk, CEO of the Press Democrat newspaper, took the baton as if it was “old hat” and went through an amazing rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”  

At the close of the concert, it was announced that Weill Hall seated 1,500 and 2,000 more were seated on the lawn during the chilly night.