Facebook Twitter

How the Mormon Tabernacle Choir director unearths musical treasures

SHARE How the Mormon Tabernacle Choir director unearths musical treasures

When traveling in Europe, most tourists are drawn to the famous landmarks, historic sites or other notable attractions.

Not so much for Mack Wilberg.

The director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would rather walk into an old music shop and spend a few hours searching for the "rare gems," something that sounds fresh, he said.

"People laugh at me," Wilberg said in an interview with the Deseret News. "For me, it's like being a kid in a candy shop. I just want to devour it all."

More than a hobby, Wilberg's glee in sifting through stacks of music in cities around the world has resulted in finding bags of music later arranged into soul-stirring compositions and used as recently as the 2015 Mormon Tabernacle Christmas Concert.

That could be the case again this year as the world-famous choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prepare for the annual Christmas concert with guest artist Rolando Villazón at the Conference Center Dec. 8-10.

"It’s the one time of the year when we bring many forces together. Not only is it the choir, orchestra and bells, but we also have our dancers and a magnificent stage set. Then you couple that with a guest artist, it makes for something special and spectacular," Wilberg said. "Let me also say that Christmastime, and in particular Christmas music, and Christmas presentations or concerts, bring out the very best in all of us."

Wilberg said it's a privilege and a blessing to be involved with the Christmas concert each year. When asked for a sneak peek of what is to come, the director smiled and politely declined. He did offer one thought about the upcoming concert, however, citing examples from the Muppets’ appearance in 2014 to the performance of Handel's "Messiah" in 2015.

"It's safe to say there will be some things in this concert that have never been done before," said Wilberg, who was appointed director of the choir in 2008. "And you can say that about every concert. There is always something unique about each Christmas concert."

Wilberg was willing to pull back the curtain and discuss how he prepared for the 2015 Christmas concert that featured guest artists Broadway star Laura Osnes and British screen and voice actor Martin Jarvis.

Wilberg is always looking for new music. When the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was touring Europe last July, Wilberg made time to visit music shops in Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam and Paris. Most of what he found he had to send home. He carried the rest: "I was at my weight limit with my bags," he said.

In November 2015, Wilberg was in Paris on another trip. He had always known about the existence of some old French Christmas carols, and with Christmas season coming, he wanted to find them. After looking around for an hour and a half, he found a small section of Christmas music that included several collections of old French Christmas carols published around the 1930s or 1940s. At first glance, he thought five or six would make good settings for the opener in the Christmas concert, he said.

"I practically leapt for joy," Wilberg said. "I was so happy to find them."

The choir did not sing in French. Friend and collaborator David Warner assisted in preparing the music in English, and there is more music in the collections to be used later, Wilberg said.

For the last 32 years, Wilberg has, at times, composed his masterpieces using a piano from Vermont that once belonged to his wife's grandmother. For 15 years in one home, the old piano fit best in the fruit room with the canned goods and extra detergent. In another home for five years, the piano was relegated to the unfinished, unheated basement. For two of those 32 years, some of the keys didn't work. Wilberg continued by "imagining" the sound of the note in his ears until he finally replaced the strings. In his current home, the piano sits by a window with a view, he said.

A chorale musician is at his very busiest around Christmastime, he said. When he isn't at home, the director has been known to compose music while flying on an airplane, without a piano.

"It's mainly when I am under a deadline, not that I am just compelled to write," Wilberg said. "But I have a lot to do."

After all his efforts to find and develop the music, it's still difficult for the director to find much pleasure in the performance, unless he's in the audience, he said.

"Believe it or not, it’s stressful," he said. "It’s not you stand there and say, 'Oh, isn’t this great?' You are worried about things like are we together? Is it in tune? Did I orchestrate this so it will sound good? ... Sometimes I prefer when I can hear other people conduct my music so I can sit out and actually hear it. When you are in the middle of it, sometimes it’s a little bit hard to hear and get the whole effect."

The pinnacle of the whole process for Wilberg is knowing he's done a successful job, he said.

Each Christmas concert begins at 8 p.m. While all concert tickets were previously distributed, patrons can join a standby line at the flagpole on the east side of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. For more information, visit mormontabernaclechoir.org.