You don't need to be a Leonard Bernstein, a Jimmy Stewart or the nation's premier choral leader, Robert Shaw, to guest-conduct the world renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Even Snoopy, Walt Disney's Donald Duck, and a 2 1/2-year-old boy have led the 325-voice singing constellation.
Since Jerold Ottley was named director in April, 1975, the famous choir has been led by celebrated orchestral leaders, popular movie stars, renowned choral directors and some surprisingly off-beat characters.Experiences with the guest conductors have been unusual, sometimes strange, certainly varied. One vivid experience etched in Ottley's memory was the filming of "Mr. Krueger's Christmas," a show that has become a television tradition during the holiday season.
"The idea for the show had been worked on for a long time, Ottley said. "The multi-talented Michael McLean, who has done many highly praised and accredited productions for the LDS Church, went in search of a celebrity guest actor and found the incomparable Jimmy Stewart.
"When Jimmy Stewart arrived," Ottley recounted, "he was unmistakably Jimmy Stewart, just the way you would imagine him to be."
At a dinner in his honor, Stewart was asked why he wanted to play this role in "Mr. Krueger's Christmas."
"Who in the world would pass up an opportunity to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?" Stewart responded.
"You know, I did the Glenn Miller story, and I don't play the trombone. They had a trombonist teach me the movements, and I worked very hard so I would look real. My greatest concern about conducting the choir is that I must look real."
Ottley gave him some quick coaching, and as Stewart conducted the choir in this classic Christmas show, he did indeed look "real."
"Not only do I want to conduct the choir, but it will give me an opportunity to tell the world of my belief in what Christ taught. I try to live by his principles," Stewart said.
On another occasion, tempestuous Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most celebrated of all American-born conductors, was at the tabernacle for a recording session. "His language was coarse," Ottley recalled, "he was shouting at everyone, and in his opinion things were not going right.
"Suddenly, in a huff, Bernstein stalked off the rostrum. Isaac Stewart, then president of the Tabernacle Choir, followed him out. Apparently, in terms that were unmistakably clear, Bernstein was told why he was here and what he was expected to do. In a few minutes he returned, his attitude completely changed; he was all sweetness and very calm. The session was completed and the result was a masterful gold record, `The Joy of Christmas.' "
The youngest ever to lead the choir was Ryan Machir, a lively 2 1/2-year-old lad from Fremont, Calif. At the other end of the spectrum was 84-year-old Fred Waring, who for more than a half century led his famous Pennsylvanians.
At a rehearsal, someone spotted the Machir lad, standing between his parents on a bench in the audience and mimicking the motions of assistant choir director Donald Ripplinger. More choir members were watching the lad than Ripplinger, who stopped the rehearsal and invited the young boy to the rostrum. Seated there on Ripplinger's lap, Ryan conducted the choir singing, "I Am a Child of God."
In 1984 Waring was in Salt Lake City with his choral group. During a rehearsal, he was invited to direct the Tabernacle Choir in a couple of musical numbers made famous by the Pennsylvanians. Waring passed away shortly after his visit to Salt Lake City.
The ill-tempered and outspoken Robert Shaw led the choir in "Elijah" at the Teton Music Festival in Jackson, Wyoming - "an unusual pairing, because in earlier years he had made very derisive comments about the choir," Ottley remembered. "He had called it the `Moron Tabernacle Choir' and felt the choir did nothing worthwhile. I was stunned when I learned that Shaw was interested in conducting the choir at the Teton festival.
"Shaw worked very hard with the choir. I had seen him in other situations where he almost stripped the skin off singers, he is a very acerbic person; but at Teton he was just delightful, warm, cooperative and truly appreciative, and the choir responded by giving him a magnificent performance."
Ottley was in awe of Dale Warland who organized and developed the Dale Warland Singers, one of the few professional choirs in the nation.
"Although I had known of him for years, I had been too timid to introduce myself to him. At a convention I finally had the courage to do so. I was shocked to find thatWarland was more aghast of me than I was of him," Ottley smiled. "We developed a warm friendship and I learned that this fine Christian gentleman was coming to do a concert at Brigham Young University. We rode on BYU's coattails and got his group to appear on our broadcast, with Warland as guest conductor."
The choir has had fun with some guest conductors. Comedian Danny Kaye, in Salt Lake City for a benefit performance with the Utah Symphony, stopped at a rehearsal and, in his comedic way, led the choir in three numbers.
Snoopy, the "beagle scout," conducted the choir in singing "You're a Grand Old Flag." Of course Snoopy first needed a little instruction, so Ottley showed him how to handle the baton in his right paw. "There are no `paws' in this piece," Ottley told Snoopy, then remarked that the choir was "going to the dogs."
Donald Duck has conducted the choir twice, in Salt Lake City and at Disney World in Florida. Donald and Ottley put on a show, not very musical, but extremely funny.
The first guest choir to appear with the Tabernacle Choir on a broadcast was the Suisse Romande Radio Choir from Switzerland in 1986. Andre Charlet was its director.
Other guest conductors were Polish-born Stanislaw Skrowaczewski who inaugurated Salt Lake City's new Symphony Hall; Sir David Willcocks, former conductor of the Kings College Choir in Cambridge, England; Norman Luboff, director of the famed Norman Luboff Choir; and Albert McNeil of the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, a choir dedicated to preserving the black folk culture.
Coming the greatest distance to perform with the Tabernacle Choir on a broadcast was Ernst van Biljon and his superb Cantare Adire Choir of Namibia (South West Africa).
Before Ottley became director, the choir had few guest conductors, the only exceptions being maestros Eugene Normandy and Leonard Bernstein, conductors of early choir recordings.
Does this pre-eminent organization really need guest conductors? "Yes," Ottley emphatically declared.
"As I began my tenure as director, I realized that the choir needed to open up its purview to the rest of the musical world. It had been much appreciated for some of the things it had done, but I believed if it was to join the mainstream of the musical world, other conductors must experience the choir firsthand, see what it does and why it does it.
"So, without permission, I embarked on a project of bringing in guest conductors. No one has ever said it was wrong, and the choir members love being exposed to these marvelous musical personalities. My guest conductor program, I believe, had made us grow."
Ottley had great praise for the warmth and spirit of local guest conductors, especially Newell Weight, for many years conductor of choral music at Brigham Young University and later at the University of Utah; and Ralph Woodward, who followed Weight as director of music at BYU. "Some of our finest experiences have come from these men," he said.
A mathematics wag has calculated that unless you are an LDS general authority, your chance of ever speaking in the historic Tabernacle is about one in 9,000. To guest-conduct the choir, the chances are much less. But don't give up hope. If Snoopy and a lad of 21/2 can do it, maybe there'll be a chance for you.