Familiar name in Utah politics takes on an unfamiliar role as president of the Tabernacle Choir

“They did not invite me to do this calling because of my voice,” says former Utah Gov. and HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, who will lead LDS Church’s premier performing troupe.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt was named the new president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

Mike Leavitt has lived with deep political fractures as Utah’s three-time governor and as the nation’s secretary of Health and Human Services, and now the politico has joined the world of harmony — musical, that is.

On Friday, Leavitt was named the new president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, the premier showpiece for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The world yearns for peace and the fundamental product of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is music that evokes peace,” the new president said in an interview. “The choir has what the world needs, and I will use whatever skills I have so that the largest audience in the world has a chance to hear and feel those feelings.”

The choir and its leaders have “new tools of digitization that can carry the message of the choir — and I might add, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — around the globe.”

As choir president, Leavitt will manage operations, employees and marketing, while overseeing the administrative components of the troupe. He also will supervise hundreds of volunteers.

This is a church calling not unlike a presidency, Leavitt said, and his wife, Jacalyn, will serve as his “companion.” He will also have two counselors, who will be named by month’s end.

He was not bothered by dropping “Mormon” from the choir’s name, Leavitt said. The choir’s “brand is very strong and like other brands it has to be continually freshened and broadened and deepened. And we now have the capacity to do that.”

A global church “needs a global choir,” he said, and that will occur using digital tools.

He acknowledged that the choir is “pretty white” and a worldwide faith “needs to reflect the entire memberships,” he said, “but this is my first day. More to be said about that later.”

He is clear about one thing, though. “They did not invite me to do this calling because of my voice.”

His wife is an excellent singer, he said, and he has played the French horn in various orchestras, but neither expects to participate in the choir.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Leavitt has been named the new president of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

Leavitt replaces Ron Jarrett, who served as the famed singing troupe’s president from Aug. 1, 2012, until Friday, and was the first and only president to have been a member of the choir.

“I am thankful for my opportunity to serve and will miss my association with the extraordinary men and women in the choir organization,” Jarrett said in a news release. “Please know I will be watching and singing along with them from my living room each Sunday morning.”

When Jarrett’s predecessor, businessman Mac Christensen became choir president, he told then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley that he was a monotone.

“We aren’t calling you to sing, Mac,” Hinckley replied.

(Tim Kelly | Salt Lake Tribune) Mac Christensen, the man behind the Mr. Mac clothing stores, poses on a ladder along shelves of dress shirts in the spring of 1990 in what was then his new store at 135 S. Main St. in Salt Lake City. Christensen, who died in 2019, was a former president the Tabernacle Choir.

Christensen, who died at 85 in 2019, threw himself into the assignment, “rarely taking more than a few days off for nearly 12 years, from 2000 to 2012,” according to his official biography on the choir’s website.

As with so many organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the choir suspended rehearsals, performances and tours.

But it announced last month that it and the orchestra will return from a 16-month hiatus with a live broadcast of its “Music and the Spoken Word” on Sept. 19.

The “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts will be open to the public starting Oct. 10. Broadcasts will take place in the Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City through Nov. 28, and in the nearby Conference Center from Dec. 5 through Jan. 2.

Due to COVID-19, the choir has been airing reruns of its weekly show, the longest continuously running network broadcast in radio history.

The choir also is scheduled to perform at three sessions of the church’s all-virtual General Conference on Oct. 2 and 3.

The group also plans to launch its twice-delayed European Heritage Tour next year, with performances in Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Copenhagen, Denmark; Oslo, Norway; Cardiff, Wales; and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Leavitt will “build on the legacy of the choir organization, with his exceptional executive experience,” Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, adviser to the choir, said in the release. “We are looking forward to his leadership and a future of continued success.”

For his part, Leavitt reiterated his bedrock beliefs about the choir.

“Choir music is a conduit to spiritual feelings,” he said, “and the world needs that.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Tabernacle Choir President Ron Jarrett talks about the 2019 Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert at Temple Square during a news conference, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt has replaced Jarrett as choir president.