When former Utah governor Mike Leavitt got a phone call from the office of President Russell M. Nelson asking if they could meet, he of course automatically said yes.
Recalling the conversation while sitting in a large velvet chair with the Conference Center’s iconic golden pipes framing him from behind, Leavitt briefly relates a few details from his meeting with the prophet. Remembering how President Nelson told him that the Tabernacle Choir had existed since 1847, and that there had only been a handful of presidents during that time, Leavitt then heard the prophet say he was the right man for the position.
Today, August 6, the Church announced that Leavitt would be the next president of the Tabernacle Choir. His first official day in the position will be August 26, according to an announcement made by Bishop Gérald Caussé.
Changes to the Role
His meeting with the prophet was a powerful moment for Leavitt, who is succeeding Ron Jarrett in the role. Jarrett, who has been Choir president since August 2012, recently reflected about his service in a press release.
“Serving as the president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is one of the choicest calls in the entire Church,” Jarrett Church Newsroom. “I am thankful for my opportunity to serve and will miss my association with the extraordinary men and women in the choir organization. Please know I will be watching and singing along with them from my living room each Sunday morning.”
Needless to say, Leavitt is taking on a big role as Choir president and says he will have things to learn in the days ahead. But Leavitt, who served for three terms as Utah governor (1993–2003) and as a Cabinet member in the Bush administration, won’t be serving alone. For the first time in the Choir’s history, the volunteer position will also include a companion—his wife and Utah’s former First Lady Jacalyn Leavitt.
“This is new. The president of the Choir has always been a singular person. . . . I’ll have my wife as a companion. . . . So the opportunity is for us to frame that role,” he says.
Leavitt also spoke to his wife’s skills as a musician and a talented vocalist, which among other things will certainly come in handy while serving in the Choir. Another difference in his role as president, Leavitt added, is that he will have two counselors to help him along the way. At present, he is still carefully considering the names of the counselors that will serve beside him.
“You follow the 8th section of the Doctrine and Covenants and find the right person in your mind, and then you seek to have that decision confirmed,” he says.
Leavitt’s Vision for the Choir
Leavitt’s experience in politics will come into play in many ways moving forward, and his background as a secretary of Health and Human Services (2005–2009) should be particularly helpful. According to Deseret News, in June 2020, Leavitt was also one of four panelists addressing the topic of COVID and lessons learned to prepare for the next pandemic. Leavitt believes that his knowledge in this area will also be helpful for the choir. He explains some of the ways his career may be useful in this position.
“One is that a global church needs a global choir, and my service has led me to do business all over the world and I understand how that process works. And I believe that that will have value,” he says. “Secondly, I will say that during the next year or two or three, I think we will be conducting our mission in an atmosphere that includes COVID. And that’s an area that I have had substantial experience in dealing with. When I was secretary of health, I was responsible for the development of the national pandemic plan. So it’s an area that I have quite a bit of familiarity with, and I think I can use that experience to keep the Choir safe.”
Leavitt also has big goals in mind for the Choir moving forward, although he anticipates finessing that plan in the future.
“I think the three primary objectives will be focusing on first [is] the idea that the global church needs a global choir, and that means seeking larger, more global audiences. I think the second area is expanding the reach of our social media and digitization. And the third is assuring that the efforts [and] activities of the Choir align with the mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those are the three categories that I have in my mind right now,” he says.
While Leavitt may be known first and foremost for the accomplishments in his career, he also has a musical background that some might be unaware of. A player of brass instruments, he laughs that he was the beneficiary of piano lessons that he didn’t take very well to, but that music has always been something he’s enjoyed pursuing.
“Music is a very important part of my life. Mostly instrumental. I played in the orchestras and bands and so forth throughout my entire education,” he says. “My primary instrument was French horn [and] I enjoyed it very much. When I graduated from the university, I had every intention of continuing but life has a way of pushing things out. And so I hope that this will be a way at which I can reacquaint myself with certain aspects of my life previously.”
Growing up, Leavitt recalls listening to the Tabernacle Choir. Later in life, he also participated on one of the Choir’s tours in England while he was governor in the ‘90s.
“I did, in fact, spend Sunday mornings in my home as a child listening to Music & the Spoken Word. I grew up in Cedar City and so coming to Salt Lake City was a very big deal. And coming to Temple Square was an important part of that journey. And I remember as a child coming to the rehearsal of the Tabernacle Choir,” he says.
No stranger to conducting, when asked if he’s ever wanted to try his hand at leading the Tabernacle Choir, he doesn’t shut down the idea—although he thinks it’s unlikely.
“I will confess that because I grew up around music organizations . . . bands and orchestras and so forth, I have in fact at times conducted orchestras, but not choirs. And . . . what person hasn’t stood in front of a mirror with the music playing loudly and conducted it in your mind? I fall into that category.”
Recalling James Taylor as one of his favorite artists to ever perform with the Tabernacle Choir, Leavitt says he gravitates to music from the ‘70s and ‘80s although he has a taste for classical as well.
“I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and we all go back to what we knew then. And if you looked at my playlists, they’d be dominated by that. But the other thing that I turn to often is Mozart. [He] wrote a whole series of horn concertos for French horn and those are favorites of mine, and I turn to [those] and the Tabernacle Choir when I’m looking for things that calm me and allow me to think.”
The Choir’s Mission
One of the most vital components of the Tabernacle Choir is the Spirit that sacred music brings, Leavitt says. He also commented on how the Spirit elevates listeners no matter what their religious beliefs may be.
“The Choir, more importantly to me, is a . . . conduit, in my view, for spiritual feelings. Sacred music provides a backdrop that produces my best thoughts. And I think that’s critical to the mission of the Choir. I’m not alone. People around the world seek peace, they seek a sense of calm, and that best comes through the Spirit. And the Choir’s role, in my view, is to produce for member and nonmember alike an atmosphere where they can feel the best of themselves.”
Leavitt also commented on the name the Choir has made for itself, and how it has earned a reputation worldwide.
“It truly is one of the great choirs in the world and one of the best-known choirs in the world. And if you begin to ask what are the symbols of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that are best recognized, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is one of them. And it is an emissary, not just for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but for Jesus Christ. It carries this conduit of Spirit to people in the form of sacred music, and that is a worthy mission.”
Although he’s just starting out in this new role, Leavitt also anticipates there being some differences compared to his career as a politician.
“Politics is a very important, essential part of life, [but] rarely does it deal with the Spirit. I think this is a pursuit that will focus on helping people to feel a sense of peace and joy. And that pursuit, in itself, is joyful and peaceful,” he says.
During his time as president, Leavitt hopes to build on what has come before him and to prepare the way for those ahead.
“Since we’re all volunteers, this is a very personal experience for anyone who serves. It’s part of the way we express our commitment,” he says. “For the entirety of the history of the Choir, it has been under very good leadership. And every leader brings their own experiences and their own skillset to the job. I acknowledge the good leadership that has brought it to the place that it is. And I think my objective will be [for the Choir] to be better than I found it, and I want to plant seeds for the next leaders. And I also want it to be said that I gave it all I could.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that August 6 was the first day of Mike Leavitt being president of the Tabernacle Choir. Although his new role was announced on August 6, he will officially become the next president on August 26.