MUNICH, Germany — Just under a week into their western European tour, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square have performed concerts in Berlin and Nuremburg — and folks on tour are still talking about what may be a defining moment thus far.
It happened during the second half of the Berlin concert on Wednesday. The final note of “Battle of Jericho” had scarcely been sounded when an enthusiastic audience member yelled out, “Whoah!”
“It wasn’t just that he said it, it was the way he drug it out and the scoop that he put into the tone of voice,” said bass singer Bob Walker. “It was exuberant! I felt an electrical energy go through the people around me when he said that, because it was the kind of real-time feedback that told us we were on track.”
Perhaps it was Ryan Murphy’s animated direction of the African-American spiritual, or Moses Hogan’s arrangement that drew forth such a passionate reaction. But some here are seeing a deeper meaning in it as they consider the line “and the walls came tumbling down” and apply it to the removal of the Berlin Wall, that hated icon of the Cold War.
Earlier in the day, choir and orchestra members and guests had viewed the remains of the wall. Much of it has been dismantled since 1989, when the breaching of the wall became a symbol of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its attendant control over East Germany.
“I’ve already felt the Spirit powerfully as I’ve walked the wall trail here in Berlin,” said choir member Joe Haynie in a letter he wrote to choir president Ronald Jarrett and shared with the Deseret News. “The feelings I’ve had about the fall of the Berlin Wall made me make connections to the walls of Jericho we’ll be singing about tonight. To me, the underlying message of the song is that through the Atonement [of Christ] we can be freed from the myriad inner constraints we face.”
Choir member David Fischer’s parents, Hans and Helga, were residents of East Berlin in 1954 during the Cold War and escaped to the West.
“At that time you could cross back and forth, but if you wanted to leave East Berlin, you couldn’t take anything with you,” he said. “So they had to sneak all their clothes out in a baby buggy. They could kind of feel what was coming so they decided to leave.”
This is the choir’s fourth visit to Germany; previous occasions were in 1955, when it performed in Berlin and Wiesbaden. The second was 1991, with performances in Munich and Oberammergau. The third was in 1991, with stops in Frankfurt, Dresden and Berlin.
Sonja Sperling Poulter, an alto in the choir, clearly remembers that latter occasion, as she was a child of 7 growing up in Frankfurt.
“It was the coolest thing ever that the choir would come from America to sing for us,” Poulter reflected in an interview. “And now, to be part of them on the other side is just magnificent.”
Poulter has been visible this trip as interpreter for announcer Lloyd Newell’s comments to the audiences and for dignitaries at pre-concert receptions.
Among the tour entourage are spouses and guests of choir and orchestra members, who have experienced the culture and interacted with locals.
On Friday in the centuries-old city of Nuremburg, while the choir and orchestra was busy with a sound check and rehearsal, guests toured the Imperial Palace, a proper medieval castle with four towers and a former moat. A vestige of the Holy Roman Empire, the castle dates back to 1050 with additions in later centuries.
Cindy Belt, whose husband David is in the choir, shared an experience from the Berlin concert. She saw an elderly man making his way to his seat, but having difficulty, he remained standing as he enjoyed the concert.
During a break, she offered him her seat, next to another choir spouse. He graciously accepted.
After the concert, she spoke with the woman he sat next to, who recounted that he tried to converse with her as best he could given the language barrier. She said he spoke of having been a conductor as a young man at that very venue.
“He was just thrilled with the concert, and said it was neat they had received the standing ovation he had never gotten.”
Prior to the tour, the singers and musicians were warned that European audiences are sophisticated consumers of the arts. Don’t take it for granted, they were told, that just because the choir is famous they would receive the enthusiastic responses they are used to with the hometown crowds in Salt Lake City.
Even so, at both performance venues so far, audiences rewarded the choir and orchestra with a raucous standing ovation, drawing forth a double encore of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Be with You.”
The latter song, a traditional farewell hymn sung by choir members, musicians and directors at the end of performances, was rendered this time in German, “Gott Sei Mit Euch” to the obvious delight of the audiences.
At each location, the crowd continued its applause with rhythmic clapping, longing for more, even after the performers had begun to file off the stage.