Mack Wilberg: If the Hall Is Great and the Audience Is Great...
When the Mormon Tabernacle Choir goes on tour this June–July, it is anything but a vacation. Yes, the Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square members pack their suitcases and jet from one location to another—except for the 11-caravan bus ride from Southern to Northern California. But vacation? Think again.
Long before the Choir and Orchestra leave, there is months of preparation. The 291 singers from the Choir’s complement of 360 whose schedules allow them to go on tour memorize all the music for two different programs for the seven concerts. That is a total of 27 pieces with several in foreign languages. No sheet music separates the Choir from the audience. Orchestra members had extra rehearsals with the Choir so both ensembles would be prepared as one unit. The Choir and Orchestra members did all this preparation for the Classic Coast tour concerts while still maintaining a demanding schedule at home with the weekly Music & the Spoken Word broadcasts, recording sessions, and preparation for other special concerts. (Just weeks after returning from tour the Choir will present the traditional Pioneer Day concerts to an audience of 21,000 on each of two nights in the Conference Center at Temple Square, featuring guest musical artists Matthew Morrison and Laura Michelle Kelly, costars of the Broadway musical Finding Neverland, and narrator Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein III.)
Depending on the tour location, these musicians arrive at the concert venue in the afternoon for a sound check/rehearsal so that when Mack Wilberg, music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for 10 years, lifts his baton at any of the seven different concert halls, he knows the Choir and Orchestra are poised to perform. They are ready to give their best.
“If the hall is great and the audience is great, everyone is bound to have a memorable experience,” Wilberg says. Every hall is different, the acoustics are different, and the audiences as well.
Touring is evidence of the Choir and Orchestra’s long-held commitment to taking choral music to audiences around the world. Just the size of the musical touring group is stunning. It would be hard to find a musical ensemble the size of the Choir and Orchestra that tours on a regular basis. Wilberg has seen scores of billboard promotions for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and scores of others being accompanied by a choir in their own hall or even in a distant one like Carnegie Hall in New York. But to go on tour for two weeks together just isn’t done.
No question, the size and the sound define the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The Choir brings two varied musical programs to the tour this year. Both programs are interesting and are designed to keep the audience’s attention. The Choir doesn’t specialize in one particular kind of music but is known for performing a wide variety, from the classics to folk songs, hymns, and patriotic and show tunes. The audiences love it.
Wilberg designs his programs with both contrast and cohesion—contrast so that all the music doesn’t sound alike, and cohesion so it all fits together. “It gets rather wearisome to hear a short piece and then applause, applause, and then another short piece, applause, applause, and so on,” he says. That’s why Wilberg planned the first half of the tour program at the indoor venues this year with no interruptions, just music pieces flowing from one to the other. Called “With Cheerful Voice: From the Treasury of Sacred Song” the program includes classics by Mendelssohn, Rossini, and Gounod and an original piece by Wilberg. The second half features songs in sets titled “Glory! Music of Rejoicing from around the World,” which includes music by Rimsky-Korsakov and a Nigerian Christmas carol; “American Sacred Song” with arrangements by Ryan Murphy, associate director of the Choir, Moses Hogan, and Wilberg; and “Two Patriotic Hymns” for which the Choir is known—“Come, Come, Ye Saints” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
While some of the music for the indoor concerts is soft and subtle, that music does not transfer well to an outdoor venue. The program for the outdoor concerts includes such favorites as “Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Wilberg explains, “The music we do outdoors has to be more forceful and less soft; otherwise, it doesn’t carry and doesn’t communicate.”
Choir concerts are all about communicating. Wilberg contends music does that better than anything else. Audiences come hoping to be moved, lifted, and engaged and to find comfort, joy, and peace, and the Choir comes ready to sing from their hearts.