It was 1969. I had been a singer all my life in junior high and high school in Salt Lake City. I was a veteran of at least one season of “Promised Valley,” the musical performed each summer in the old amphitheater across from the Salt Lake Temple, just west of where the Church office fountain is now. Many of my fellow singers were wondering what would be next.
To our surprise, University of Utah music professor, Dr. Jay Welch, announced auditions for a new choir being formed for the Church to help provide music for some Sunday evening radio programs with Elder Sterling W. Sill. It was going to be called the Mormon Youth Chorus. And instead of accompaniment by just an organ, this group would also have a Mormon Youth Symphony.
Amazingly, after I auditioned, I was accepted. (I think they were more desperate then, than in later years, so I have always considered myself fortunate.)
We practiced in the upper theater of the North Visitor’s Center on Temple Square for the first while. It was an amazing experience to sing with 350 other voices. It was a dream come true for this young musician who always wanted to sing with the famed MormonTabernacle Choir, but was too young.
One of our first concerts was inside the old Salt Palace, where we performed for the dedication of that facility. Later, we were back again performing for the World Conference on Records – held also in the old Salt Palace.
After a brief stint in the Army and an LDS mission, I was once again able to rejoin the Mormon Youth Chorus and enjoyed weekly musical “highs” with my fellow musicians for nearly 10 years. We performed in numerous concerts in the Tabernacle, including an all-Aaron Copeland concert, a concert, featuring music from “Porgy and Bess,” and a thrilling concert featuring the music of and the guest conducting of music giant Howard Hanson.
By 1974, Dr. Welch had been called to take over as conductor for the Tabernacle Choir. Two other musical giants were brought in to help him and to take over the future of the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus. That’s when I first met Dr. Robert C. Bowden.
As I pursued my professional career in journalism and broadcasting, I was asked to help put a book of remembrance together about Mormon Youth for the Church’s 150th anniversary in 1975. That led to a part-time job at the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus (MYSC) offices, helping with public relations and marketing for the group.
Mormon Youth was also a perfect dating opportunity for me back then. I had dated several young ladies in the chorus and orchestra after my mission and eventually met my wife Lori there. We were married in 1975. I have since discovered that many former members found their spouses that same way in the organization.
Mormon Youth President Ray Ferguson had been called to help move the group forward, which he did with much vigor. We were able to plan and execute a tour for the large ensemble, taking them to Disneyland in California to sing in the Space Mountain Amphitheater (where the ride is now) and to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. That was no easy task, coordinating rides in several buses for the performers and taking an air-conditioned semi-tractor trailer for the Symphony’s instruments.
The trip went like clockwork however, and President Ferguson was able to coordinate with our advisers many other opportunities like that, including other concert tours, Emmy Award winning PBS-TV specials and Freedom Foundation Honor Medals.
Sadly, by 1979 my time with Mormon Youth was about to come to an end. The cut-off age was 30-ish for most members, and I was 29. But what pulled me away was an employment opportunity to work for CNN in Los Angeles in 1980. We packed up our family and moved to California to spend the next 30 years there working in television and radio.
During those 30 years, Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus really shined. Brother Bowden composed and arranged numerous songs for the group and began selling the recordings through Deseret Book Company and Covenant Recordings. They took tours to Philadelphia, New York City and many other places. They continued to perform concerts in Utah and the Intermountain area, too, including many performances on Temple Square.
Flash forward to 1999, which was a sad year for the members of the Mormon Youth organization because Brother Bowden announced his retirement. The Church opted to then phase out the organization, creating an Orchestra at Temple Square instead, which would then accompany the Tabernacle Choir.
It has been a very successful move for the Church.
Then, about a year ago, those in charge of the Temple Square Performances (formerly Temple Square Concerts) realized that 2010 would be the 30th anniversary of the concerts on Temple Square. I’m told the committee, upon reviewing what it should do to celebrate, kept seeing the name Mormon Youth surface as members reviewed the many concerts given three decades ago.
I’m told that some on the committee were too young to remember the MYSC performances but thought it would be interesting to have the cute little Mormon Youth kids come and perform again. I suppose they soon learned that those once in Mormon Youth, who were 18-to-30 then, were now in their 50’s and 60’s. Fortunately, they still decided to try to re-assemble the group for a reunion concert.
A notice went out in the Church News just before last April Conference, and many of the 4,000 former members responded that they would like to participate.
It was no easy task. Music had to be re-obtained (some of it had been disposed of). An organizational structure needed to be created including section leaders and staff, and much of it had to be done without a Church budget.
Bob Bowden told me as the concert was being assembled, that he was enjoying his retirement. Yet when they approached him to conduct again he jumped at the chance.
Finally after months of planning and several minor miracles later, the group was re-assembled in the newly remodeled Tabernacle basement for 5 rehearsals over the past two weeks. Last Friday and Saturday, 11 years after the group was officially disbanded, two concerts were given by the former members of the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus.
Many of the members came from far away (California, Denver, Arizona, and farther) to perform one more time together. Most looked a little different, with the years adding a few extra pounds here and a lot of missing hair there. But the sound was wonderful – inspiring.
The program was a mixture of many of the MYSC favorites, such as music from Disney that had been featured in previous Disney concerts; traditional favorites such as “Come, Come Ye Saints,” “Amazing Grace,” and “A Christmas World” (the theme to another award-winning TV show). The orchestra performed movements from Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” and joined the choir for the patriotic “This Land is Your Land,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
During one of the rehearsals a woman from Israel mentioned to one member that she was so touched by the singing of “Hatikva,” the Israeli National Anthem, since she had been in exile from her homeland for many years. She said it was truly inspiring for her.
Then, almost as quickly as it began, the week-long rehearsal and performance ordeal was over.
Many members I spoke to said while their knees may be a little feebler now than 30 years ago, their voices felt just as strong. They were so thrilled to be part of the group just one more time and wished the experience could last longer.
For me, it was a thrill to sing in that historic hall once again, especially since I’m now too old to participate with the Tabernacle Choir. I had all of my children come to see the performance because it is probably the only time they will ever hear me perform inside the Tabernacle. And since that was where I had met their mother so long ago, I was hoping they’d feel a connection to the group and the power and spirit of the music. They did.
Thanks to those who allowed such a reunion concert to take place. It was a testimony-builder for those who performed, as well as for those who listened and observed. It will be something for which I am forever thankful.
Rest in Peace, Mormon Youth. God be with you till we meet again. I believe the Lord is well pleased with your service.