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SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in more than 18 months, members of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square returned to the Conference Center Auditorium in Salt Lake City for rehearsal Tuesday evening.
To be present, choir members were required to be vaccinated, screened, tested for COVID-19 on-site, sit apart from one another and wear a face mask.
Still they rejoiced at the opportunity to be together again. Less than 20 minutes into the rehearsal, the triumphant sound of "Come, Ye Children of the Lord" filled the almost-empty Conference Center and signaled the choir had returned.
"I'm overjoyed," said James Sutherland, a choir member and committee member who helped organize the choir's safe return to singing. "It's been a long 18 months apart. I think every person in this organization is just so very much looking forward to being back together."
How the Tabernacle Choir's return relates to Swiss cheese
The Tabernacle Choir, goodwill ambassadors for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, halted all live events in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then the organization has not rehearsed, performed or recorded music.
The choir announced plans to return to rehearsals and performances in July.
One month after becoming the choir's new president, former Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt introduced a seven-step plan at an organization-wide "Restart Orientation" via Zoom on Thursday, Sept. 9, according to the Tabernacle Choir blog.
Leavitt likened the plan to resume choir activity to the image of stacking slices of Swiss cheese. Each slice has holes, but the more layers of protection applied, the higher the likelihood that the COVID-19 virus spread can be minimized, said Leavitt, who previously served as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The multilevel plan will allow the choir to sing at the October 2021 general conference. Half the choir will sing in the Saturday morning session, and the other half in the Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon sessions. Music for the Saturday afternoon and evening session will be provided by other choirs who have pre-recorded their performances.
The choir's multilevel strategy includes these seven layers:
- Vaccinations: All performers must be vaccinated and provide evidence of being immunized. (Those not vaccinated will be granted a special leave until conditions improve.)
- Screening: Those with health conditions that limit effectiveness of their immune systems even if vaccinated or those with immunocompromised household members will also be granted special leave.
- Testing: Every performer and all support personnel will be tested prior to each rehearsal or performance.
- Social distancing: For general conference, only half of the choir will sing at each session.
- Face coverings: Masks will be worn except when actively rehearsing or performing.
- Self-reporting: Organization members will report COVID-19 symptoms or household exposure and stay home with any symptoms, even sniffles.
- Ventilation: Performances will be limited to the Conference Center for now because of greater ventilation safety.
Leavitt is confident the plan will work. Preparation included consultation with many medical professionals and public health professionals, he said.
"We've constructed a plan that we believe will keep the virus out of the loft where the choir sings. We will be following and testing every time we meet. I think this is a good example of how you can assure safety under difficult conditions," Leavitt said. "I continue to feel more and more optimism and excitement for the choir, and for them to sing tonight to demonstrate that we can both be precautious and safe, and have the choir sing."
A small number of choir members have requested special leave of the choir, which means taking leave of the choir without any repercussions to their attendance, said Dr. David Palmer, the choir's medical doctor.
Along with being a choir member, Sutherland is a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah who has done airflow dynamic studies in venues like Abravanel Hall, the Capitol Theatre and other venues around the country.
"The No. 1 priority, the overarching goal, was to create a safe environment for the choir to rehearse and perform," Sutherland said. "We knew that if we couldn't do that, we weren't coming back."
What happened at the first rehearsal?
In keeping with tradition, choir rehearsal opened with a prayer. The choir member giving the prayer expressed gratitude for the chance to gather again, for health and strength, assistance in preparing to perform at general conference, and that their "voices would return to us."
Leavitt and Bishop Gerald Caussé then addressed the choir.
"In 174 years that the choir has existed, there's never been a time when there was this type of break in rehearsal and performance — 555 days since this marvelous sound has echoed through the chambers of the Conference Center in the (Salt Lake) Tabernacle," Leavitt said. "Tonight we have engaged in a minor sacrifice for the privilege of being able to be together and to testify in song of the Savior and his love. I have every confidence that we'll continue, that the choir will move forward, that 555 days is enough."
Seeing the choir back in the Conference Center gave Bishop Caussé "goose bumps."
"I was having goose bumps when I came into the Conference Center and I'm still having them just to see you here and to realize this is the first time in many months," the church leader said.
Bishop Caussé invited the choir to pray that they might continue uninterrupted through general conference and Christmas.
"I know that the Lord has this choir under his protection," he said.
How it feels to be back with the Tabernacle Choir
As choir members arrived, they reported to tables organized in alphabetical order along the plaza level of the Conference Center for a COVID-19 rapid test. Once cleared, they received a green sticker and walked to the choir loft.
For choir member Staci Dame, the screening and testing process felt "familiar and comfortable."
"We're all a little bit excited. People are smiling everywhere. We're here earlier than normal. People are just anxious to be back in the saddle," she said. "I feel very safe knowing that they've taken so many precautions, so many layers ... to keep us protected."
Anthony Kirkham, who sings in the baritone section, loved the feeling of getting together with old friends again.
"It feels really fantastic," Kirkham said. "After being gone for so long, I look forward to filling the void that I felt for the last 18 months. There's something about being with your friends and with really good musicians, and something about singing high-quality music at a high level that creates a feeling that you can't duplicate. That's the feeling that I've been missing a lot. That's the part I look forward to the most."