The American singer-songwriter, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., known professionally as John Denver, said, “Music does bring people together. It allows us to experience the same emotions. People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: We are the same.” Those words perhaps never rang truer than they did on Monday, 25 June 2018, when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and several members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus stood shoulder to shoulder for a sound check rehearsal on the stage of the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Northern California.
Dr. Timothy Seelig, the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, knows all too well that music is often called a universal language, but it is also a global unifier, and has the power to unite people despite the supposed walls that separate them. However, when he first got word that his organization had been invited to perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he thought that it was a joke and that someone was trying to prank him. Upon learning that the invitation was legitimate, he was quick to accept. Not only did his organization perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but Dr. Seelig was the guest conductor of the choir’s concert at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, the fourth stop of their 2018 Classic Coast Tour.
It wasn’t hard to spot the members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus; they were the ones wearing purple T-shirts with the name of the organization emblazoned across their chests. Otherwise they blended in well with their fellow performers as choir conductors Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy led them through segments of songs to be performed at Monday night’s concert.
Chris Pettallano is a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus – which features some 300 voices — and has been touring and recording for nearly four decades. He grew up Mormon and a musician and recalls listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He told the Deseret News, “I believe music is universal … so this opportunity is a blessing. I am not surprised that music can bring two different communities together.”
Ten years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported Proposition 8 in California, being both supported and criticized for its efforts. The Church affirmed the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Their stance drove a wedge between them and many in both the gay and church community. By blending the voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the voices of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, a bridge of understanding and unity was constructed and built. A common sentiment heard often Monday was, “It’s all about the music.”
Mormon Tabernacle Choir President, Ron Jarret, told the Deseret News, “The purpose of music is to unite people. Music affects people in many ways. This is a great opportunity to bring two cultures, if you will, to the center of things and to build bridges, to make friends, and to make an enjoyable experience for everyone through music. . .. The chorus members are having a glorious experience, as are our people.”
Reflecting on the experience of conducting the choir during the afternoon rehearsal, Dr. Seelig said, “I had a blast; who gets to do that?” He referred to the afternoon as “a milestone for these two organizations that we did not think would be coming for maybe 10 or 20 years.” He also called the Mormon Tabernacle Choir “the greatest choir in the world, hands down.” Speaking about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the world’s oldest gay men’s chorus, which he conducts, Dr. Seelig remarked, “We are the granddaddy of the LGBT choral moment, what we do is build bridges.”
Dr. Seelig further commented that there are “obvious differences” between the two organizations, “but when we get to sing together it doesn’t matter. We are blending our voices to make music as beautiful as we can.” There was some opposition felt when people learned that the Chorus had been invited to perform with the Choir. To that end, Dr. Seelig said, “It doesn’t heal everything, but it is a step on the part of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to open the doors for this rehearsal to the Gay Men’s Chorus.”
*The lead photo for this article is from Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.