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Posted: 9:59 PM- The abrupt resignation of longtime Mormon Tabernacle Choir director Craig Jessop just two weeks before a major Easter concert and a month before LDS General Conference left many grasping for an explanation today.

Jessop's surprise move late Tuesday fueled speculation but few answers about the reasons for his departure.

LDS officials declined to comment, beyond what Jessop said in his resignation letter. Jessop did not return calls.

This much is clear: Rather than conducting the choir's rehearsal Tuesday, the 58-year-old Jessop arrived around 9 p.m. and read a short letter that said he was "at a major crossroads of life." He said he intended to "keep active in the musical world, including teaching" and to spend more time with his wife, RaNae, their children and grandchildren. He then walked out, leaving the choir in stunned silence.

Tuesday was the first time since Feb. 28 the 360 vocalists had seen Jessop. He scheduled a short rehearsal for some members Saturday, but didn't show up, according to several who were there. Without warning, he also failed to attend Sunday morning's broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word," which is unusual.

After Jessop's Tuesday night announcement, LDS officials named associate director Mack Wilberg as the choir's interim director. By this morning, they had removed Jessop's biography from the choir's Web site.

Observers said this is a particularly tough time to lose Jessop. The choir is preparing for a concert and recording session of Robert Cundick's "The Redeemer," on March 21 and 22. Two weeks later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will hold is 168th Annual General Conference during which President Thomas S. Monson will be sustained as the 16th president. Monson replaces Gordon B. Hinckley, who before his Jan. 27 death had personally supervised the choir since 1980.

Jessop's resignation was particularly tough for Mac Christensen, the choir's president who has worked with Jessop for the past seven years.

"You're shocked," Christensen said today of his initial reaction, "but then you pull back and think about all he has done. This man is brilliant . . .What a magnificent man. What a great ride to be with him. The relationships he built for the church, the choir, the state and the United States are unreal."

Christensen credits Jessop with enhancing every aspect of the choir's productions - its musicianship, performance, recordings, stage presence, tours and audience.

Jessop conducted the choir and Utah Symphony at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, working with world-renowned artists Sting and Yo-Yo Ma and composers John Williams and Michael Kamen.

Before Jessop became director in 1999, choir tours didn't have the greatest audiences, Christensen said, now they can "fill an NBA arena with more than 14,000 people. Last year alone we had a million request for tickets to the Christmas concert."

Christensen will miss his collaboration with Jessop, but feels confident that Jessop has "set the stage, showed us what to do. There might be a little clink at first but we'll continue to go forward."

Jessop's resignation is reminiscent of a similar episode in choir history.

Jay Welch, who became choir director in 1974, was expected to lead the choir for decades, but lasted barely a year.

Welch was "one of the most gifted and popular conductors the choir has ever had, and his sudden and unexpected resignation brought a number of administrative problems to the surface," Roger L. Miller writes in the Utah History Encyclopedia. "Though regarded as a tragedy at the time, this resulted in many important changes which have worked to the advantage of the present organization, including placing the choir under the direct supervision of the First Presidency of the church."

The choir director is a full-time, paid position. Like the volunteer singers and soloists, the director must be a Mormon who follows church practices such as paying tithing and forgoing alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. Choir members rehearse and perform about five hours in an average week - Thursday nights for two hours and Sunday mornings for more than three hours.