Classically Trained: Singing on a high note at the Segerstrom Center

The Mormon church's tradition of music, particularly vocal performance, is as strong as any. President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir "America's Choir." It counts Emmys and Grammys among its accomplishments and an extensive library of recordings.

Continuing in that great religious music tradition Saturday at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall was the Orange County Mormon Choral Organization, a local musical contingent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

Hundreds of singers and an orchestra complemented the stage in Costa Mesa — which looked full and nearly to capacity — for "Beautiful Savior" at 2 and 7 p.m. The singers ranged from older adults to first-graders. They performed the whole concert impressively from memory, without the aid of sheet music.

The first half began with songs of praise, but also took a fun tone when the young children sang "Popcorn Popping" — a light-hearted song containing such verses as "It wasn't really so, but it seemed to be / Popcorn popping on the apricot tree."

Brandon Stewart, an Orange County native who recently moved to Gilbert, Ariz., performed the finale to Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1" at a brisk and energetic pace that showed off his mastery of the ivories.

Conducting the majority of the concert was Brett Stewart, brother of Brandon Stewart and an LDS member who lives with his family in Fountain Valley. The conductor-composer is a graduate of Brigham Young University, and received his master's at Cal State Long Beach and doctorate the University of Cincinnati.

Brett Stewart's compositional talents were clear in his orchestration/arrangements of "Popcorn Popping," "Beautiful Savoir" and "Jesus Is My Shepherd."

Brett Stewart also composed the oratorio "Messiah in America," written for mixed choir, children's chorus, four soloists and full orchestra. With Bruce Richardson he co-wrote its libretto, which is based on the Book of Mormon's account of Jesus Christ visiting the American continent after Jesus' death and resurrection.

"It would take a second oratorio of even greater length to capture all of it," Brett Stewart wrote in the program's introduction to the piece. "I have only attempted to relate the story and include some of the more precious and sacred scenes."

The four soloists were soprano Jennie Litster, alto Francesca Forsyth, tenor George Dyer and baritone John Huntington.

"Messiah in America" was quite the engaging listen, full of energy and memorable motifs that Brett Stewart said reached back, stylistically, to the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and more contemporary eras.

Saturday's concert was recorded for archival purposes, said Susan Stephensen, executive director of the Mormon Choral Organizations of America.

The organization consists of the Orange County Mormon Choral Organization and the East Valley Mormon Choral Organization, based in the Gilbert and Mesa, Ariz., regions.

The all-volunteer ensembles both work on a two-semester schedule, with each semester concluding with a concert. The Orange County concluded its fourth year Saturday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' premier hall, which Stephensen said is the group's home base for performances.

They usually rehearse at the Mormon church's stake center adjacent to the temple on Bonita Canyon Drive in Newport Beach.

Stephensen said members from Orange County and Arizona are heading to Salt Lake City this June to perform and record "Messiah in America" at Abravanel Hall. The hall is the home of the Utah Symphony and is adjacent to Temple Square, headquarters of the LDS church.

Most of the singers are LDS members, Stephensen said, but many in the orchestra personnel are of different faiths.

"I think that's what really makes it beautiful," she said. "You have people with all different religious beliefs come together to create really beautiful music."

For more information on the Orange County Mormon Choral Organization or how to get involved for the 2011-12 season, visit

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at

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