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Music vital in bringing comfort

Wilberg says 'Called to Serve,' 'Requiem' show the famed choir's range

Music brings solace to the soul. That is perhaps nowhere more clearly illustrated than with the centuries-old tradition of the requiem.

"A requiem is meant to bring comfort," says Mack Wilberg, newly named director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir whose "Requiem" was released earlier this year on a CD featuring not only the choir but also soloists Frederica von Stade and Bryn Terfel.

Music is also a powerful means of inspiration and motivation. That is clearly illustrated with another newly released Mormon Tabernacle Choir CD, "Called to Serve," which is designed to bring strength and comfort to those on missions as well as in other endeavors in life.

They are very different projects, Wilberg says, but he thinks they demonstrate not only the wide range of the choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square but also their

ability to tackle the task at hand, whatever it is, and perhaps one that he shares with them. "I do think one of my strengths is the ability to adapt to whatever the situation is," he said.

The two CDs were both recorded with conductor Craig Jessop, who stepped down from that post in March. Wilberg has high praise and affection for the former conductor. "I'm so grateful to have been able to work with him. Craig has always been my greatest champion and interpreter."

In fact, it was at Jessop's behest that the "Requiem" was created. Jessop was conducting a concert as part of the Carnegie Hall National High School Choral Festival in 2006 featuring Ralph Vaughan William's "Dona nobis pacem." But the piece was not long enough to fill the entire program, so Wilberg was commissioned to write an Introit and an Epilogue to fill out the evening.

Wilberg chose as his text the traditional opening of the Requiem Mass: "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine — Grant them eternal rest, O Lord."

Jessop suggested that the pieces could be the start of a full-fledged "Requiem," and Wilberg went to work. The finished piece was premiered in April 2007 as part of ceremonies marking the opening of the renovated Salt Lake Tabernacle.

The CD was released shortly before the death of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, and for many people became a fitting association with that event.

Requiems, which were originally masses honoring the dead that date back to the second century, have taken on a broader scope and meaning, Wilberg says, not only under the hands of 17th- and 18th-century composers such as Mozart, Verdi and Brahms, but especially in the 20th century, with works by Herbert Howells, Benjamin Britten and John Rutter.

Wilberg's "Requiem" has some of the elements of traditional works, but it doesn't have the hell fire and damnation, the "Dies Irae," of some of those earlier works. "Mine is more in the tradition of Brahms and Faure," he says, "composers who preferred to offer comfort."

He takes text from the Bible for other sections, and he also uses a mixture of Latin and English, which is also something popularized by 20th-century composers. It makes it more accessible, he says. "Latin is beautiful and has become something of an international language, but there is also something about singing in your native language that has meaning."

The CD also features several other Wilberg choral compositions. "They are in a similar vein. The main issue is to bring comfort. In this day and age, we need all the comfort we can get," he says.

He has similar hopes for the "Called to Serve" collection. "Even missionaries get discouraged at times," he notes. "We wanted to share with them feelings of hope, of pressing forward. We wanted to lift their spirits."

The genesis of this collection was a bit different, says Scott Barrick, executive director of the choir. "Our partners at Deseret Book came to us and said they thought it would be nice to have a project focused on missionary work. Of course, our first focus is the LDS market. There are so many missionaries out there. But there are missionaries of other faiths, as well. Anyone who shares our love of God and our joy in his gospel may be touched by these songs."

What many people don't realize, Wilberg says, is that a lot of the hymns in the LDS songbook are not of LDS origin. Songs such as "Called to Serve," "I'll Go Where You Want Me to Go" and "How Firm a Foundation" have all been adopted into the LDS faith.

This CD, the 14th released on the Tabernacle Choir label since it was created in March 2003, is actually a compilation album containing a number of previously recorded songs that fit the theme. But there are four newly recorded Mack Wilberg arrangements, as well.

Wilberg has always been known for his arrangements. He particularly loves arranging American folk hymns because "the material is so good," he says. But doing an arrangement is a complex process that involves a lot of intangibles. "A lot depends on who and what you are arranging for," he says. "All you need is one good idea. When I teach classes I tell them that two ideas are often one too many."

Those ideas seem to have been born and bred into Wilberg, who grew up in mining towns of eastern Utah. "I was playing the piano by ear when I was 4. In those days, every home had a piano, and I just started playing it."

It took him a while to decide that music would be his life — that's always a scary notion, he says. "But don't ask me what else I could have been. There's nothing else I can do. I believe that everyone has talents and gifts. We all have different kinds."

He is also quick to add that "it is a great privilege to work with everyone associated with the choir and the orchestra. An army of volunteers keeps this ball rolling," he says. "None of us could do what we do without them."

He also appreciates the underlying support of the church, not only financially but in encouraging them to "dream big dreams." When it comes time to record a "Requiem," and someone says why not ask Frederica von Stade and Bryn Terfel to sing on it, "They say, 'why not!"'

So, as he takes over his new duties as choir director, those are two of his goals: keep the ball rolling along and dream big. Those — and to continue to share the power of music to comfort, to inspire, to uplift.