Mack Wilberg: The Mind Behind the Music

May 23, 2013

Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is an audience favorite when performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square and is the number three most watched video on the choir’s YouTube channel. Giving renewed vitality to well-loved hymns and folk tunes through his arrangements is an important part of his work as music director for the choir and orchestra.

“I work very hard to stimulate and keep people’s attention. Music ought to be an enjoyable journey for the listener,” he says. Perhaps it is because Mack understands this that the choir, which has been performing for more than 100 years, has retained its classic style while still remaining relevant in the digital age. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is one of the few groups that is as likely to be in your grandmother’s record collection as it is on your nephew’s iPod.

Mack was musically educated at prestigious universities, including Brigham Young University, where he received a bachelor’s degree, and the University of Southern California, where he received masters and doctoral degrees. But music was in Mack’s blood long before he received any formal training.

As a boy living in the small mining community of Castle Dale in central-eastern Utah, 4-year-old Mack Wilberg learned to play the piano by ear. His fascination with the instrument grew until it bordered on obsessive. Mack’s mother, concerned about balance in her son’s life, sometimes had to force him to break from the piano and go outside and play. He would go outside to appease her, but then he would go to his neighbors’ home, where he would ask to play their piano. Music was more than just diversionary for him; it was his life.

His family was supportive of his fervor. Every week, his mother would drive him 40 miles outside of town to where he could receive quality instruction from a gifted piano instructor. When he was 10 years old, his grandmother took him to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform. He says that as he entered the threshold of the Tabernacle, the effect on him was tangible. “It felt like I had walked into a wall of glorious sound,” Mack says. Little did he know that eventually that same choir would perform his own musical creations as he stood at their fore with a conductor’s baton. Dr. Wilberg was appointed to be director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 2008, less than 50 years after he first entered the Tabernacle as a boy. As director, he manages all musical and creative aspects of the choir, the Orchestra at Temple Square, the Temple Square Chorale and the Bells on Temple Square, including selecting repertoire for concerts, recordings and tours and providing the creative direction for the weekly Music & the Spoken Word broadcast. He is also involved with selecting and training new choir members.

What do members of the choir think of their director? They admire his brilliant mind; they appreciate his exacting perfectionism; they joke good-naturedly about his quiet nature; they express the most sincere gratitude for the opportunity to perform his music. You will find no greater fans of Mack Wilberg than those who sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Today, Mack is active as a composer, arranger, guest conductor and clinician throughout the United States and abroad. His compositions and arrangements are performed and recorded by choral organizations throughout the world. In addition to the many compositions he has written for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, his works have been performed by such artists as Alfie Boe, Katherine Jenkins, Nathan Gunn, Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Bryn Terfel, the King’s Singers, Sissel, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Natalie Cole and Audra McDonald, as well as narrators Tom Brokaw, Claire Bloom, David McCullough, Edward Herrmann, Jane Seymour and Walter Cronkite. His music has been performed by the choruses of the Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Dallas Symphony Orchestras. His works have also been sung by distinguished choral ensembles including the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; St. John’s choir; and Sweden’s Orphei Dränger. During the 2007 holiday season, his “Still, Still, Still” was performed in Royal Albert Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 2004, Mack Wilberg’s music was sung at both the WWII Memorial Dedication and at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan. The following year, he was asked to write two arrangements for a military choir and orchestra. His arrangements of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and the Navy hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” were included as part of the music for the state funeral of President Gerald Ford on 2 January 2007, performed by the combined Armed Forces Chorus and Marine Orchestra. Mrs. Ford was seen saying “beautiful” to her daughter during the performance of this music.

He and his wife, Rebecca, are parents of four children and have one grandchild.