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Guest conductor says he checks in with his musicians by asking 'What would the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do?'

For Dr. John A. Romeri, standing in front of a talented choir with a conducting baton in hand is not much different than Tom Brady dropping back to throw a football — it’s just what he does.

As the director of music and organists for the Christ Cathedral in the Catholic Diocese of Orange California, Romeri has enjoyed a celebrated musical career. He leads choirs, tours and releases albums.

But Tuesday was far from typical.

Romeri performed as the guest conductor for one number during the opening concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s 2018 Classic Coast Tour at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, California. Leading the choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square in “This Land is Your Land” during an encore at Tuesday’s concert was, he said, “an out of body experience; just such a treat.”

He called the choir “an amazing icon of Americana” that doubles as a choir reference point for all others. Romeri often asks his own choirs: “What would the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do?”

Mormon Tabernacle Choir members perform an animated selection during June 19, 2018, opening tour concert in Costa Mesa, California.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir members perform an animated selection during June 19, 2018, opening tour concert in Costa Mesa, California. Photo: Photo courtesy Mormon Tabernacle Choir

The guest conductor said his friend and colleague, Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg, told him prior to the Costa Mesa concert to just have fun — “and I really did.”

Tuesday’s concert in Southern California was the first of seven stops as part of the 2018 Classic Coast Tour for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square.

The choir’s weekly “Music and the Spoken Word” has been broadcast, uninterrupted, since 1929. And its official YouTube channel has captured over 130 million views from around the world.

“But there is nothing like listening to the choir in person,” said choir president Ron Jarrett.

The experience of listening to the choir live, added music director Mack Wilberg, “is impossible to capture any other way.”

In addition to Costa Mesa, the Classic Coast Tour will include performances in the California cities of Los Angeles, Berkeley, Mountain View and Rohnert Park. The Golden State is something of a second home to the choir. The choir first performed in California in 1896 — and have since traveled there for over 40 performances.

Orchestra at Temple Square musicians perform June 19, 2018, at tour-opening concert in Costa Mesa, California.
Orchestra at Temple Square musicians perform June 19, 2018, at tour-opening concert in Costa Mesa, California. Photo: Photo courtesy Mormon Tabernacle Choir

The tour wraps up with concerts in British Columbia, Canada, for their third ever visit to Vancouver and then Seattle, where they first performed in 1909.

Jarrett said the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square are far more than a collection of talented vocalists and musicians. They are ambassadors for the Church, charged with delivering, through music, the joy and comfort offered by the gospel.

“We want to lift the audience’s spirit and give hope,” said Jarrett.

A variety of selections highlighted the Costa Mesa set list — including selections from the American Songbook such as the “Battle of Jericho”; sacred songs, both contemporary and from the 19th century; and, of course, signature hymns such as “Come, Come, Ye Saints” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“I had friends I’ve know for years at last night’s concert, and they were blown away,” said choir member Richard Bigler.

Bigler knows his way around Orange County. He and his family lived in the area for several years before taking his optometry practice to northern Utah.

Given his local connections, he circled the Costa Mesa concert long before embarking on the tour. He wasn’t disappointed. The choir and orchestra, he said, made immediate connections with the audience that carried them through the evening.

“It was a great concert. … When you can tell that the audience is enjoying what you are doing it just feeds the fire,” he said.

His fellow choir member Joanne Andrus enjoys an ancestral choir connection to the Golden State that belongs in a Hollywood script.

Her great-grandparents, Joseph and Ida May Anderson, met in 1902 while traveling across California as part of a Mormon Tabernacle Choir tour. Ida had found a lost wedding ring in a train depot. As she turned to return the ring to the depot office she bumped into Joseph. They began talking about many things as they traveled — and by the time the choir reached San Francisco they had fallen in love.

“It was a tour romance,” said Andrus.

The Andersons later married and raised their family in Utah’s Cache Valley, faithfully serving in the Church and in their community.

Several of Andrus’ relatives were in the audience for the Costa Mesa concert. “It was an amazing way to start the tour,” he said. “Costa Mesa definitely set the stage for the rest of the tour.”