Conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

On Easter Day 1998, I was invited to be a guest conductor of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir for their Sunday broadcast program. I had long known the then conductor, Jerold Ottley, as well as the Assistant Conductor (and soon to be Conductor) Craig Jessop. Craig had studied voice with me when he was 15 years old. He did his undergraduate study with me at Utah State University and also his doctorate with me at Stanford University. Jerold and Craig contacted me about appearing as a guest conductor and we discussed proposed choral literature. Eventually, I was assigned to conduct a series of pieces for the broadcast.

TV was not my idiom. I had, of course, appeared on the tube several times in my career, but had little understanding how a “live” program was planned and executed. One of the pieces (actually, three-in-one) was the final portion of Handel’s Messiah. This included Worthy is the Lamb that was slain; Blessing, Glory, Honor, Glory and Power; and finally, Amen. The total amount of time to perform these three pieces amounts to about 8-12 minutes. During my first rehearsal with the choir I conducted the works and at the conclusion, Craig came up to me and told me that because this was a live broadcast, I would have to take a faster tempo on the Amen in order to be within the limits of the broadcast time. I explained that the tempo I had chosen was a bit slower than many people perform it, but was convinced that it was the proper tempo for the piece. I had studied, and conducted the piece for decades and settled upon what I truly believed to be the “correct” tempo.

Craig again explained that the international broadcast was limited in time and that I must conclude in the allotted time. I had heard apocryphal tales of the Tab Choir broadcast performance the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah and running late. At the end of the piece, there are four statements of “Hallelujah” then a pause, and then a final triumphal and slower "Hal-le-lu-jah!" The story goes that during the final 4 statements the tempo got faster and faster. During the pause, so the story goes, the radio announcer breaks in and says, “This is NBC, the National Broadcasting Company” and then the Choir sings the final “Hal-le-lu-jah!!!!” I always thought this was a funny story but never realized how nearly true it might be.

Tabernacle Choir
Ramsey Conducts the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

During the actual broadcast, there was a woman sitting directly in front of me while I was conducting, holding up cards which said +15, or +40, or -10, etc. This indicated that my tempo was either going over or under the allotted amount of time by the number of seconds she displayed. There is really nothing else the broadcast can do except to take what I offered and, hopefully, it would fit accordingly.

It was a hair-raising event which I hope never to repeat. When I finished, however, the woman was holding up a sign which said, “+-0.” I had finished this international TV program exactly on time!

Bill conducts Tabernacle Choir, 1995

For a video of Ave Verum Corpus, by Mozart of the Tabernacle Choir, conducted by Ramsey, CLICK HERE.
For a video of Were you There When They Crucified My Lord, A Spiritual, CLICK HERE
For a video of Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain, from Handel's Messiah, CLICK HERE

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