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Opening the 'Golden Gate' with music: Tabernacle Choir performs in honor of pioneer voyage

Making its first appearance in San Francisco in 30 years, the Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle Choir musically implored the city by the bay to "open your Golden Gate" in concert performances Monday evening, July 29, and Tuesday evening, July 30, in Davies Symphony Hall.

North Californians did more than that - they opened their hearts to the 320 singers, directors and accompanists, gave a listening ear and all but offered to let them sing on and on after the program officially ended. Word-of-mouth primed the Tuesday evening audience for what was described as "a spectacular event" July 30.The choir came to California to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aboard the ship Brooklyn, which docked July 31, 1846, at Yerba Buena, which is now San Francisco. The sea-faring pioneers, coincidentally, left New York the same day fellow Saints began their exodus from Nauvoo, Ill., Feb. 4, 1846.

Their voyage, which lasted six months, took them 24,000 miles, sailing down the Atlantic side of North America, on around South America's Cape Horn, and into the Pacific with stops at the Juan Fernandez Islands and the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. It was an epic journey, not only in Church history but also in navigational feats. The Saints aboard Brooklyn are believed to have taken the longest sea journey of any "religious outcasts" in this dispensation.

About 2,200 attending each night's performance by the choir received a little bit of the Salt Lake Tabernacle "flavor" as Lloyd Newell presented a spoken word message, much in the same format as the weekly network program of "Music and the Spoken Word."

" `Be strong and of good courage. . . . Be not afraid, neither be dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.' (Josh. 1:9.) These words of comfort and counsel were initially given to the Old Testament prophet Joshua, but they have since inspired many a faithful traveler," Brother Newell said. "Perhaps the Mormon pioneers who set sail on the ship Brooklyn in 1846 took courage from the Lord's admonition to be strong and not afraid. The 238 men, women and children who sailed the Atlantic and Pacific for six long months and landed here in the sand hills of Yerba Buena were nothing less than strong, courageous and faithful."

Brother Newell explained the logistics of the voyage, which was led by Samuel Brannan, a 27-year-old printer from New York. "This intrepid band set sail on Feb. 4, 1846 - the same day other Mormon pioneers were leaving Nauvoo, Ill. And though their hardships were different from those of the pioneers who went overland, they were equally challenging and heart-wrenching: cramped quarters, sea sickness and scurvy, fierce storms, dwindling supplies, and death. One passenger, Carolyn Jones, wrote: `Of all the memories of my life, not one is so bitter as that dreary six months' voyage, in an immigrant ship around the Horn.' "

Brother Newell pointed out that historians have noted that the Brooklyn pioneers were the first colony of home-seekers with women and children to sail around Cape Horn, the first group of Anglo settlers to come to California by water, and the first colony under the United States regime in California. "Thus, this forlorn California outpost, later renamed San Francisco, was the first city in the American West colonized by Latter-day Saints."

Although the Saints aboard the Brooklyn were unaware of William Clayton's new composition, "Come, Come, Ye Saints," the hymn is a befitting choral tribute to them.

The choir's powerful yet tender performance of that hymn had an obvious effect on the audience.

With Jerold Ottley and associate director Craig Jessop conducting and John Longhurt and Clay Christiansen taking turns at the Davies Symphony Hall's pipe organ and piano, the choir presented a program that certainly had something for everyone in the audience - which included the king and queen of Tonga.

Also attending the concert were Elder David B. Haight of the Quorum of the Twelve, and his wife, Ruby, and Elder Loren C. Dunn of the Seventy and president of the North America West Area. They are participating in several events of the 150th anniversary of the Brooklyn. On Wednesday, July 31, they participated in two plaque dedications, one at Broadway and Front Street in San Francisco, where the original Brooklyn passengers landed, and a second on Oakland's Temple Hill, where the Oakland Temple, the visitors center and an interstake center are nestled together.

Regarding events of this week, Elder Haight said, "I hope it will be remembered with a lot more interest and enthusiasm than it has generally been known in the Church. We have played the wagon exodus with such vigor and enthusiasm in songs and in every way that you could imagine. But that courageous trip by water is virtually unknown. I've talked with people who are long-time members of the Church, bright people as far as Church history, who knew very little of the voyage of the Brooklyn or the Sam Brannan story, or the importance that that little Mormon colony played in the building of San Francisco."

Elder Haight called the Tabernacle Choir performance a highlight of the week's events. The concert opened with "All People that on Earth Do Dwell," a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 100, a 16th century melody. Next, the choir performed three choruses from Randall Thompson's 1936 composition, "The Peaceable Kingdom," for which texts were taken from the book of Isaiah.

Music seemed to hang in the air. Pauses exposed breath-holding silences throughout the concert hall.

The audience particularly liked "Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord," composed by Kirke L. Mechem, who, later in the program, stood in the audience and took a bow in acknowledgment of his musical work. He applauded the choir as much as the choir applauded him.

"Holy Radiant Light," from a Russian vesper service composed in the 1930s; "Angnus Dei" by Samuel Barber, and "Padre Nuestro," a Spanish setting of the Lord's Prayer, were included in the first portion of the program.

After the intermission, Brother Christiansen gave a powerful performance of "Tu Es Petra," by Henri Mulet.

A bit of Americana came into the program as the choir performed several settings by Copland: "Zion's Walls," "At the River," "Long Time Ago" and "Ching-a-Ring Chaw."

Monday night after the choir had sung "The Battle of Jericho" and "My God Is So High," the latter of which featured choir member Brian Roberts as soloist, the singers and the audience received a surprise. Brother Jessop stepped down from the podium and introduced Moses Hogan, a young African-American composer and arranger with whom the choir has worked in recording an album. He led the choir in singing one of his works, "Elijah Rock."

After the concert, Mr. Hogan said he was surprised, also. He had come from New Orleans where he was working with a chorus of 36 voices that will perform Aug. 4 in Sydney, Australia, for the World Choral Symposium. "I came from New Orleans to hear the choir," he said. "I went backstage at intermission to say hellos to Jerry and Craig, and they said, `Why don't you conduct this?' He described the experience of once again directing the Tabernacle Choir as "refreshing." He added, "I love the choir. That's why I traveled just to hear them." Interrupting his rehearsal schedule to travel to San Francisco to hear the Tabernacle Choir was no small tribute to the choir.

The choir's closing number each evening was Gustav Holst's "Psalm 148." A more eloquent ending could not be hoped for, but the audiences obviously wanted more. As they persisted in sustained clapping, Brother Newell returned to the stage and warned, "Don't encourage them. They have over 1,200 pieces in their repertoire. You could be here all night!"

To that comment, a member in the first night's audience shouted, "Yes! Yes! Let them sing!"

The choir's encore performance, literally, was custom made. A friend and associate of Brother Jessop, Chief Master Sergeant Michael Davis, chief arranger for the Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants, arranged especially for the Tabernacle Choir a "Golden Gate Medley" that brought big smiles, nods and enthusiastic applause from the audience.

"San Francisco," "California, Here I Come" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" definitely left the audience wanting more.

"It was such an enthusiastic audience," Elder Haight said. "I sat with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. He was very cordial through the whole concert. When they started singing San Francisco,' andCalifornia, Here I Come.' He jumped right out of his seat."

Both concerts ended with the choir performing "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Cheers and applause erupted as soon as Brother Newell announced the piece and resurfaced as the choir finished singing it.

Scott Horton, a professional publicist for the 150 Years in California Committee, said: "You can hardly be alive and not have heard of the Tabernacle Choir. You don't have to do much work to convince people and tell them how good this choir is." He said both performances were sold out 21/2 weeks ago.

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