Last night we saw the Mormon Tabernacle choir and orchestra perform at the US Airways Centre in Phoenix. We have CD of Christmas music by the world-famous group and I had often heard them perform on radio and television but had never seen them in person. They were in Phoenix to give two concerts in celebration of the centennial of the state of Arizona.
I was surprised to learn the 360 choir members and 110 orchestra members are all volunteers. They do not get paid to sing, even though participation in the Grammy and Emmy award-winning group requires them to practice and perform together 155 days a year. 85% of the singers who audition for the group are not accepted. You have to be at least twenty- five years old to begin singing in the choir and once you are a member you can stay till you are sixty years old or have sung for twenty years, which ever comes first. The night of the Phoenix concert the master of ceremonies asked all the married couples in the choir to stand and there were a large number.
I had only heard the choir sing more traditional hymns and carols in the past and was surprised at the eclectic nature of their program. We were treated to Broadway show tunes like Sunrise, Sunset, 76 Trombones and It’s a Grand Night for Singing. Two highlights for me were a song from the Sephardic Jewish community in medieval Spain called Ah el novio no quere dinero! and a Nigerian piece called Betelehuma that was performed with a tricky and intricate percussion accompaniment and had the choir and audience swaying almost hypnotically in response to the engaging rhythms. The hymn Come, Come Ye Saints was beautifully sung and I learned a Mormon poet wrote its lyrics.
I have to admit the last number on the program The Battle Hymn of the Republic was my least favorite. As a feminist I bristled at the non-inclusive language “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”. Perhaps this was to be expected since the concert program had a photo of the three male leaders of the Mormon Church and the eight staff and directors of the choir were all male.
The mix of religion and patriotism in the lyrics in The Battle Hymn of the Republic also troubled my Mennonite pacifist soul. The words of the hymn describe a God of vengeance whose terrible swift sword will create justice and Jesus as a hero who will crush evil with his burnished rows of steel. Hardly the ‘swords into plowshares gospel’ preached in the home and church in which I was raised.
The clear highlight of the evening for me was when soloist Alex Boye performed the Negro spiritual I Want Jesus To Walk With Me. His voice was absolutely perfect for the song and the nuances he gave to the rhythm and tune were inspired. Tears were running down my cheeks by the time he finished and I know I wasn’t the only one in the audience with that reaction. Later I listened to an interview with Boye who says whenever he performs the song he thinks of the way music helped the slave community to rise above their difficult circumstances. As he watches the faces in the audience while he sings I Want Jesus to Walk With Me he realizes the power music still has to heal and uplift people. Humble to a fault the very talented musician says, “It’s not about the singer. It’s about the song.” Those aren’t just idle words. Boye’s name was not in the concert program and I had to do some research to find out who he was.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has an 83 -year history and is certainly a unique and talented group of musicians. I’m glad, that thanks to my brother-in-law Paul and sister-in-law Shirley who arranged for our tickets, I had the chance to hear them perform in person.
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