Brothers Brandon Stewart and Brett Stewart have a passion for molding children and youth and helping them rise above mediocrity. Their weekly choir rehearsals are full of reminders like “Diction. Passion. Testimony.” As co-founders of the largest choral-orchestral organization in the world, they are passionate about excellence.
What is Millennial Choirs & Orchestras?
Millennial® Choirs & Orchestras (MCO®) is a 501(c)(3) charitable, non-profit organization and involves over 5000 participants in five states:
- Orange County, California (OCMCO), founded in 2007.
- East Valley, Arizona (EVMCO), founded in 2009.
- Dallas, Texas (DMCO), founded in 2013.
- Utah Valley, Utah (UMCO), founded in 2013.
- Treasure Valley, Idaho (TVMCO), founded in 2015.
Each MCO location houses four youth choirs for ages 4 through 18, an auditioned adult choir, and an auditioned symphony orchestra. They generally perform twice a year in the finest concert halls in their communities and occasionally combine forces and tour to other locations. Recent tours have included Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2019; the historic Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2017; The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, in 2016; and the National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) in the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, in 2013.
According to its website, “MCO was founded in 2007 for the purpose of teaching and encouraging excellence in quality sacred and classical music. Its primary purpose is to fulfill the need for more refined music education and performance in our communities, with a focus on God and country.“
The Founding of MCO
Brett Stewart was in the final year of his choral conducting doctorate program at the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music when he had a strong impression that he needed to return home to the Huntington Beach area of Southern California and begin a choral-orchestral organization. He called up his brother Brandon, then a graduate student in piano performance at The Juilliard School in New York City, and asked him to join in this new musical endeavor. In the fall of 2007 they founded the Orange County Mormon Choral Organization, which would eventually become Millennial Choirs & Orchestras (MCO).
Sharing the Podium: The MCO Conducting Team
As the organization grew, requests poured in for new locations. In order to expand, the Stewart brothers would need to bring other conductors onto the team. In the world of classical music, it is extremely rare for conductors to share the podium, but MCO believes in breaking the mold and doing things in a fresh, new way, which means involving multiple conductors, not only for rehearsals but especially for concerts.
MCO’s conducting team includes the following:
Brandon Stewart has enjoyed extensive studies in piano, voice, chamber music, and choral music. He received a master’s degree in piano performance from The Juilliard School and a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University.
Brett Stewart received a doctor of musical arts degree in choral conducting with cognate studies in composition from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, a master’s degree in choral conducting from California State University, Long Beach, and a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University.
Cory Mendenhall earned a doctor of musical arts degree in choral conducting, with cognate studies in orchestral conducting, from the University of Utah. He earned a master’s degree in choral conducting from Brigham Young University and a bachelor of music degree in choral music education from Utah State University, with related studies in organ performance.
Joni Jensen received a doctor of musical arts degree in choral conducting, with a minor in vocal performance, at the University of Arizona. She also earned a master’s degree in choral conducting and a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and pedagogy from Brigham Young University.
Jodi Reed earned a master’s degree in choral conducting from California State University East Bay and a bachelor’s degree in piano performance and pedagogy from San Jose State University.
Previous conductors include Dr. Brent Wells and Dr. Cherilyn Worthen.
The Stewart brothers are also MCO’s composers-in-residence, composing and arranging most of the repertoire for the choirs and orchestras. Their music is also highly sought after by choirs and orchestras in communities throughout the U.S. and beyond.
It’s All About the Kids
MCO’s conductors are passionate about what they do, especially when it comes to kids. Brett Stewart talks about preparing MCO’s youth:
While the overall mission and purpose of the MCO has not changed since its founding, the focus of that mission has definitely geared toward the youth. The world is in moral decay—there is no question about that. We are not going to let that affect these kids. We love them. [We] conductors … have children of our own. We have a vested interest in this whole thing. We are desperately trying to help these kids understand their worth and their value. We are desperately trying to help them to understand the way that they can find true faith, build true testimonies of the gospel. … They are building testimonies on the spot in every rehearsal. That is priceless for us. That is why we do what we do.
And kids make up the bulk of the organization. In Arizona alone there are usually about 1000 kids participating each semester! The repertoire usually focuses on sacred, Christmas, or patriotic themes, and the kids really respond to and connect with it.
Many of MCO’s adult participants also have kids in the youth choirs. They love participating in MCO as a family, especially when they can practice together at home—and share the stage during concerts. They feel, along with so many other parents, that MCO brings added dimensions of discipline and spirituality to their lives and those of their kids.
An Army of Parent Volunteers
MCO concerts are a unique experience. The various youth and adult choirs take turns sharing the stage and often perform from balconies or aisles. Often they combine for songs. With hundreds of children and youth involved, all of this movement, both on and off stage, can only happen with an army of parent volunteers. From check-in and check-out to concert attire check, from moving kids to and from their performing spots to keeping them safe in their staging areas, there is no shortage of things for parents to help with. And it’s an eye-opening experience for parents, too. Many parents love volunteering so much that they do it for every concert, preferring to assist their kids backstage than sit in the audience.
Most MCO locations perform multiple concerts twice a year. On average, the combined five locations perform 13 concerts each semester because their performance venues are too small to fit their audience! Most locations perform twice on one night, sometimes on multiple days, so performances really do require a lot of parent helpers.
MCO also requires that parents assist at rehearsals, helping with things like check-in, music distribution, or drop-off and pick-up. This gives parents an exceptional opportunity to see all the work that goes into rehearsals and concerts.
From Sea to Shining Sea: MCO Tours
All MCO tours are completely voluntary. Those who wish to participate must pay their own way. MCO handles none of the travel and accommodation arrangements. It’s simply up to each person or family to make their own arrangements and show up where they need to be, when they need to be there. This makes it much more affordable for families to participate. In fact, families make up the bulk of tour participants.
Often tours include not only performances but also recording an album, which is an exciting experience in and of itself for most participants. There are usually so many people that want to participate that multiple casts must be formed, with each cast recording different songs.
MCO routinely receives performance requests from all over the country, but being sensitive to families’ time and finances, it generally limits tours to every other year.
When the Lights Went Out at Carnegie Hall
Historic Carnegie Hall in New York City was ringing with the sounds of singing, accompanied by a full symphony orchestra. It was nearly 7:00 P.M. on Saturday, July 13, 2019, and Brett Stewart was on the podium rehearsing over 1000 youth and adults from MCO’s choirs and orchestras in California and Utah for that evening’s culminating performance of MCO’s tour to NYC—a tour that involved nearly 3000 youth and adults. The choirs and orchestras from Texas, Idaho, and Arizona had performed Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Now it was time for their California and Utah counterparts to take the stage.
However, their moment to shine seemed to be momentarily extinguished when the power went out just a few minutes into rehearsal. The rehearsal continued with the aid of the battery-operated orchestra stand lights, as everyone assumed the power would be restored within a few minutes, but it was not to be. Manhattan’s West Side would end up being without power for three hours, shutting down the subway system, Broadway theaters, Times Square, a major airport, and much more. While Carnegie Hall staff waited for power to be restored, it was necessary to evacuate the musicians to the streets outside Carnegie Hall. But what to do with hundreds of children and youth?
Immediately MCO’s staff kicked into gear. Dozens of volunteer parent helpers shepherded the kids outside, gathering them to safe places and trying to keep the children, some as young as four years old, from panicking. Workers at a restaurant across the street brought water to some of the youngest children and took part in a protective human chain formed by nearby adults.
And then the music began. First the adults, then the kids. With nothing else to do but wait, they chose to share their music with the people on the streets of NYC. Hundreds of nearby evacuated people brought out their cell phones and began recording videos. In the meantime, Manhattanhenge was putting on its yearly show, providing a stunning backdrop for the glorious music. Many of the cell phone videos went viral, allowing the choirs from California and Utah to share their music and their message with the entire world, even though their hopes of performing in Carnegie Hall had been dashed.
Dr. Stewart said of the experience, “God’s children showed inherent light that day, and being a small part of that was worth all of the effort it took to get there and the disappointment of temporary darkness.”
Staying Alive in the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020
Participants in all five MCO locations were busily preparing a 10th anniversary performance of Brett Stewart’s sacred oratorio Messiah in America when the United States shut down in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some locations were just a couple of weeks from performing. All 13 planned spring concerts were canceled.
The Stewart brothers anxiously watched with everyone else the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape. Plans were made and revised, then revised again, and again, and again. They hoped to return to regular rehearsals in the fall, but things were not looking good.
As with every other performing arts organization, they were struggling to find a way just to stay afloat. Two of their primary sources of revenue (participation fees and concert tickets) had been stripped away, leaving them to rely on the generosity of their patrons and other donors. They were just weeks from when their normal fall semester would have begun—and there was no end in sight to the gathering restrictions, social distancing, and mask requirements—but failure was not an option.
A new idea was born: Instead of performing 13 Christmas concerts, they would enlist that semester’s participants in creating MCO’s first-ever Christmas video, something that they had received numerous requests for over the years but had never been able to produce. And since they couldn’t rehearse the choirs and orchestras in person, they would rehearse them virtually. They created a 10-session semester, with professionally produced weekly videos for each choir covering not only the repertoire for the Christmas video but also vocal training, rhythm and conducting, sight singing, music theory, and more—things that they never had time to explore in depth in regular weekly rehearsals. Participants would view the videos at home and practice on their own, then gather outdoors to film songs for the Christmas video.
Since MCO was going virtual, that meant they could open up participation across the nation (and across the world), and MCO Across America was born as the newest “location.” Remote participants could view the weekly videos like participants in the regular locales, and instead of participating in the on-site filming of the Christmas video, they would be able to send in their own video recordings for inclusion in the project.
MCO Across America and virtual participation have been very successful so far. There are a lot of youth who are participating, and they are grateful for the opportunity. Many remote participants are begging for MCO to continue doing some sort of remote participation once the pandemic ends. They love being a part of MCO, even if from afar.
Inspiring America’s Youth
MCO’s slogan is “One Vision. One Voice.” It strives to unite people of many faiths in singing praises to God and celebrating the wonderful, rich tapestry of America. Although MCO does provide an incredibly enriching, musical experience for adults, everything is planned around the youth. The Stewart brothers are passionate about strengthening youth and lifting them to greater heights, instilling confidence in them and helping them understand that they can accomplish incredible, sometimes-difficult things. And that vision keeps the Stewarts moving forward in these challenging times.