Watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s annual Christmas concert on PBS, tuning in to its weekly Music and the Spoken Word broadcast and listening to the choir’s recordings have made me a fan of these 325 talented men and women. Last week, I accomplished my goal to hear the choir in person.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was formed in August 1847, one month after the first group of Mormon pioneers crossed the Wasatch Mountains and entered the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Since then, it has appeared at five presidential inaugurations, performed with several noted orchestras, produced more than 150 recordings, and received many awards, including a Grammy for its rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah is the choir’s home. Built between 1863 and 1875, the Tabernacle features a domed, self-supporting roof. There are no pillars and posts to obstruct the view of the 4,000 people the building can accommodate; bridge-building techniques, such as using steam to bend the beams, were used to construct it.
Every Thursday evening, the choir rehearses in the Tabernacle. Since these rehearsals are free and open to the public, we planned our travel so that we’d arrive in Salt Lake City last Thursday afternoon. At 7:45 p.m., we joined long lines of people who were waiting to enter the building from four directions. To our surprise, we saw our cousins Jack and Lois, on their Western trip to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
As promised, the Tabernacle’s doors opened at 8:00 p.m. and the choir was singing “This Is My Father’s World,” one of my favorites from the choir’s repertoire. We walked inside, went upstairs to the balcony, and listened as Conductor Mack Wilberg led the choir and Orchestra at Temple Square in rehearsing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” from Oklahoma!; “Sing!,” Charles-Marie Widor’s work based on Toccata, from Organ Symphony No. 5; Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” from White Christmas; and “Seventy-Six Trombones,” from The Music Man.
After a short break — during which time we moved downstairs to sit in the front row — Mr. Wilberg led the choir and orchestra in an impromptu concert for several special visitors, including groups from the Consulate of Switzerland, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a writer for Smithsonian magazine. In addition to some of the selections just rehearsed, the choir and orchestra performed Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Glory,” “Gloria” from Mass in D, op. 86 by Antonin Dvořák, and “Nunc Dimittis.” The concert ended with a moving rendition of the choir’s signature piece, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Our well-timed visit also included another concert of the choir and orchestra. The next evening, we returned to the Tabernacle to hear the Freedoms Foundation’s Constitution Day Concert. Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert and Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were also in attendance. Lloyd Newell, the choir’s well-known announcer, also participated in the program. “The Star Spangled Banner,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” from State Fair, “Sunrise, Sunset,” from Fiddler on the Roof, “I Got Rhythm,” from An American in Paris; and “God Bless America” were some of the songs on the program. After inviting the audience to join the choir in singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Mr. Wilberg remarked, “Now you can go home and say that you’ve sung with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
Tabernacle organists and invited guest organists give free 30-minute organ recitals in the Tabernacle weekdays at noon and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Last Saturday, we had second-row seats for a recital by Richard Elliott, principal organist of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
To demonstrate the Tabernacle’s exceptional acoustics, Mr. Elliott first tore a sheet of newspaper, then dropped three straight pins and one nail on the floor of the stage. After the sounds rang clearly and loudly throughout the hall, he remarked that there is a 70-foot distance from the organ to the front door of the Tabernacle.
Then, Mr. Elliott sat down at the organ. According to the Organ Recitals at Temple Square brochure we received, the Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ was originally constructed by pioneer organ builder Joseph H. Ridges in the 1860s. Over the years, it has been rebuilt and enlarged. The organ has 206 ranks and 11,623 pipes, organized into eight divisions. It is played from a five-manual console.
First, to showcase the organ’s two high pressure trumpet stops, Mr. Elliott played Georgi Mushel’s Toccata. Then came J.S. Bach’s In Dulci Jubilo, more familiarly known as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” After playing “Let Us Break Bread Together,” by Dale Wood, Mr. Elliott shared “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” another of my favorite tunes from the Choir’s repertoire. The melody for the hymn was adapted from an English folk song, while the words were written as the Mormon pioneers made their historic journey from Illinois to the Salt Lake Valley.
Next came an interpretation of “The Ash Grove,” a Welsh folk song that I like to play on my harp. Mr. Elliott concluded his recital with John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March.”
Since 1929, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has broadcast Music and the Spoken Word, the nation’s longest continuous network radio program. Every Sunday morning at 9:30, the choir and orchestra convene in the Tabernacle to offer a 30-minute program on a religious, uplifting theme designed to inspire listeners of the broadcast, which is carried on more than 2,000 radio and television stations and cable systems. This was what I had come to Salt Lake City to hear.
We returned to the Tabernacle at 8:00 on Sunday morning and were the third party in line. When the doors opened at 8:30, we went up to the balcony, where an usher suggested that the best seats were in the center of the front row.
As Conductor Wilberg rehearsed with the choir, orchestra and organist Richard Elliott, cameramen practiced their craft from stations on the left and right sides of the balcony, close to the stage. Another cameraman stood on a large platform that had been constructed over the first several rows of seats on the main floor, panning the stage with a large camera boom arm. Two video monitors showing the Music and the Spoken Word logo flanked the stage. A makeup artist roamed the stage, powdering performers’ faces and pomading their hair.
Suddenly, I heard Lloyd Newell’s voice behind my left shoulder, saying the broadcast’s opening line, “From the crossroads of the West, we welcome you….” I turned around and saw the talented man with the terrific job recording his various contributions to the broadcast before bright lights and a Teleprompter. That was a big moment.
When the rehearsal concluded, Mr. Newell and another choir administrator welcomed us to the Tabernacle and gave us instructions on what would happen during the broadcast. We also learned that the Ambassador of Peru to the United States, a group of Boy Scout leaders from Tunisia and the Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] Singers were in the audience.
At 9:30 sharp, we heard the familiar strains of the broadcast’s opening theme, “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain,” and Show Number 4,331 began. The choir and orchestra opened with “King of Glory, King of Peace,” followed by the spiritual “Peace Like a River,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “This Is My Father’s World.” Mr. Elliott played Georgi Mushel’s Toccata. And Dr. Newell offered “Nature Brings Solace” for the spoken word, sharing a quote from Anne Frank in his thoughtful message to find encouragement in the beauty of nature. As the choir and orchestra performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Glory,” Dr. Newell walked down to the stage with two dark-suited escorts to give his concluding remark, “May peace be with you, this day and always.” The choir sang broadcast’s ending theme, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.”
If you’re a fan of the choir (which consists of all volunteers who are not compensated for their time, by the way), mark your calendar for some important dates. The guest artists for the 2012 Mormon Tabernacle Choir/Orchestra at Temple Square Christmas Concerts will be announced on October 11 between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. Mountain Time, on The Doug Wright Show on Salt Lake City’s KSL Radio (1160 AM, 102.7 FM). Click here to listen to live streaming options. The choir will tour the upper Midwest from June 12-21, 2013; they just happen to be performing at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus on June 12, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
For more information on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, see http://www.mormontabernaclechoir.org. To watch or listen to Music and the Spoken Word in your area, call 1-888-826-6266 or visit http://www.musicandthespokenword.org. To read archived messages and performance lists from Music and the Spoken Word, see http://fans.musicandthespokenword.org/messages/archive.php. To learn more about the choir’s history, read America’s Choir: A Commemorative Portrait of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, by Heidi S. Swinton. Companion works that I enjoy are America’s Choir: Favorite Songs, Hymns & Anthems (a music CD) and America’s Choir: The Story of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (a DVD). Lloyd Newell has authored several books, including This Day and Always: Inspirational Messages from Music and the Spoken Word.