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Debra Gehris , IRI
Jeh Johnson, guest conductor, poses with announcer Lloyd Newell during the evening concert at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 25, 2015.


In the shadow of the nation’s capital, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple performed the first two concerts of their two-week Atlantic Coast tour June 25 in the sold-out, 1,600 seat Music Center at Strathmore.

Lloyd Newell, announcer for the choir’s weekly television and radio broadcast “Music and the Spoken Word,” spoke to both the matinee and the evening concert audience near the end of the program.

“We have come here to this Washington, D.C., area many times over the years,” he said. “In fact, you may be interested to know the first time we came to Washington, D.C., was way back in 1911.”

He then brought laughter when he acknowledged, “It wasn’t this choir, but it was our predecessors, and we’ve been here 15 times since then. The most recent was 2011.”

In both the matinee and the evening concert, the audience demanded two encores. For the second encore in each concert, a surprise guest conductor led the choir and orchestra. At the matinee, it was Rabbi Gerald Serotta, director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. In the evening concert the guest conductor was Jeh Johnson, United States Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.

With music director Mack Wilberg and associate music director Ryan Murphy sharing conducting duties, the choir and orchestra performed selections “from the treasury of sacred song,” focusing in turn on hymn tune settings from the masters (Mendelssohn’s “Von Himmel hoch” and Holst’s “Psalm 148"), 19th century sacred song (including the stirring “Unfold Ye Portals” from Gound’s “The Redemption”) and contemporary sacred song (including Brother Wilberg’s own composition “Requiem aeternam” from his “Requiem”).

After intermission, the choir and orchestra performed “music of rejoicing from around the world,” including “Glory!” from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and their popular rendition of the Nigerian Christmas carol “Betelehemu,” and the American folk hymn “Pilgrim Song.”

Soloist Alex Boye, a recording artist, former member of the choir and always a delight to audiences, brought exuberant applause with his performance of two African American spirituals: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” and “I’m Runnin’ On.” Two of the choir’s signature hymns — “Come, Come, Ye Saints” and the Grammy-award winning “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — completed the programmed concert lineup, followed by “Climb Every Mountain” and “This Land Is Your Land” for the two encores.

Rabbi Serotta, guest conductor at the matinee, recently served as Rabbi of Shirat HaNefesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and as Executive Director of the interreligious organization Clergy Beyond Borders. He was the founder and chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights — North America and has chaired the board of chaplains of George Washington University for many years.

Mr. Johnson, the evening guest conductor, was the general counsel of the Department of Defense during the first Obama administration, before being appointed to his present post.

Responding to questions in the green room after the concert regarding his opportunity to lead the choir, Mr. Johnson, who leads a department of 225,000 people, quipped, “Someone said to me, ‘This is the first time in a long time 400 people will actually do what you say.’”

He said among the 1,100 songs he has downloaded on his iPod device, at least one is by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “I think it’s ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

He said former U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon invited him several months ago to come to the concert. “I jumped at the opportunity to come hear the music and see the Tabernacle Choir. Then a few days ago I was asked to be the guest conductor. I said, ‘What? What do you want me to do? Don’t you have to have skill for that? But it was a really terrific experience; I enjoyed it very much.”

He called it “an inspiring experience, spiritually uplifting and good for the soul.”

Demand for admission to the evening concert demonstrated the need for a matinee, but having one presented something of a problem, said Scott Barrick, general manager of the choir. Strathmore, a multi-disciplinary arts center, has no daytime parking facility. A municipal garage is used for the center in the evening, but during the day it is not available.

That meant the afternoon performance must draw from people who would not be driving cars downtown. To boost attendance, the Tabernacle Choir organization offered tickets to missionaries serving in the Washington D.C. North Mission.

Thus, choir member Boyd Fisher of West Bountiful, Utah, was able to make connections with his missionary son, Elder Jedediah Fisher.

Along with Elder Fisher’s companion, Elder Joshua Ord of Orange, California, the father and son were among concertgoers attracted by a new feature being offered during this tour to attendees, giving them a chance to “sing with the choir.”

The feature uses a video camera to superimpose the video image of anyone onto a background of Tabernacle Choir members singing the familiar hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Ed Payne, executive producer of “Music and the Spoken Word,” explained that it is accomplished by the same process that has been used for years in television news and weathercasts.

“This gives people an opportunity to sing with the choir one verse, we record it, and we email them a link to the video recording on a private YouTube channel. Then they can share it with their friends and family as though they had sung with the choir.”

The idea came, he said, from repeated expressions of people over the years that they had always wanted to sing with the choir. Now they have that chance.

The Atlantic Coast tour continues with a performance June 27 at Bethel Woods, New York, the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival. Performances follow at Saratoga Performing Art Center in New York; two concerts at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall; an appearance at Yankee Stadium for a New York Yankees baseball game; and, finally, a performance at the Wang Theater in Boston, Massachusetts.


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