Ron Rockow closed out his day Tuesday atop a podium at Overture Center, doing what no other high school choir director has ever done: guest-conduct the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
It was a surprising and wholly unexpected opportunity for Rockow, 77, who taught music in the Madison area for 38 years, the last 28 as choir director at Madison Memorial High School. He retired in 1996.
“I can’t tell you what a highlight this is of my life,” Rockow said during a dress rehearsal Tuesday afternoon. “The whole thing seems sort of like a dream.”
Tuesday’s concert was the first in Madison for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is based in Salt Lake City and part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It brought 310 of its 360 members, plus a 65-piece orchestra, to the sold-out Overture Hall.
Choir tradition holds that a local dignitary is tapped as the surprise guest conductor for the final number at each tour stop. The choice, made by a local committee with the approval of choir officials, is kept secret from the community until the concert.
Often, it’s an elected official or prominent religious figure. At the choir’s stop Friday in Indianapolis, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana assumed the podium. Monday night in Milwaukee, it was Catholic Archbishop Jerome Listecki.
Rockow got a call out of the blue a couple of weeks ago asking him to be Madison’s guest conductor. As often happens with retired teachers, the honor originated with a former pupil.
“He’s had a huge impact on my life,” said Jonathan Gochberg, 56, who graduated from Memorial in 1974. “I have him to thank for my love of music.”
Gochberg, an assistant high school principal in Bountiful, Utah, is the only Madison native in the choir. In talking with a choir publicist months ago, he mentioned how Rockow, his high school choir director, had sparked his passion for singing.
“I respected him for a couple of reasons,” Gochberg said in an interview Tuesday. “He obviously knew what he was doing, but he also was a working musician who played bass in a local polka band. As teens, we’d find out where he was playing and go dance the polka once a month or so.”
On top of that, Rockow was a family man, something that resonated strongly with Gochberg, now the parent of five children and five stepchildren.
Rockow, who is not Mormon, said he wasn’t surprised that Gochberg was behind the honor because he was a great student involved in everything musical. The Mormon part did throw him a little, however.
“When I knew Jon, he was a Jewish kid who loved Christmas,” Rockow said. Indeed, Gochberg grew up attending Temple Beth El in Madison, converting to Mormonism in 1985.
Choir President Ron Jarrett said Rockow was chosen because he’s symbolic of all the choral teachers who have ever inspired young musicians. The choir has never had a high school music teacher as a guest conductor, said spokeswoman Kim Farah.
“He’ll actually know what he’s doing tonight,” Farah said during Tuesday’s dress rehearsal.
That’s another way of saying most guest conductors aren’t musicians. Listecki made comic reference to his inexperience Monday night, kneeling and crossing himself with the baton before beginning the song.
Rockow said choir officials were a little flummoxed when he requested the complete orchestral score to “This Land is Your Land,” the song he’d be conducting. No one had ever done that. Still, Rockow said he knew his place.
“It’s a matter of staying with them, not really directing them,” he said at dress rehearsal. “I wouldn’t dare try anything new.”
The dress rehearsal gave Gochberg and Rockow a chance to catch up. They hadn’t seen each other for 39 years.