Review of The Choral Music of Mack Wilberg. by Jolynne Berrett

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1 Berrett 1 Review of The Choral Music of Mack Wilberg by Jolynne Berrett Last Saturday night, I had the opportunity to hear an entire evening of Mack Wilberg s music. The program included some of his most famous arrangements, as well as several of his original compositions. It was an extraordinary experience. As a child, I never liked choral performance because I don't like to sing. I've had a fair amount of voice training and choral ensemble practice, but I have a hard time matching my voice to the pitch I hear in my head, and after a few minutes this becomes intensely frustrating. Also, I avoided choirs because I fought the inevitable slide into becoming my mother, an accomplished musician and gifted accompanist. A couple of years ago, however, my pastor finally talked me into playing for my congregation's choir. It was an easy sell, because I was tired of hearing halfhearted accompaniments that sabotaged the choir's efforts. At that time, I finally decided to stop fighting the transformation and embrace the fact that my mother and I have yet another thing in common. Because of my recent induction into the choral world, I have been trying to learn about the important players in this new game. Last Christmas, my mother suggested that I purchase a few Mack Wilberg arrangements to see if I wanted to play them for my choir. I did and was astounded at the depth and brilliance of his arrangements of familiar carols. He finds contrasting melodies that I never would have paired with such traditional phrases. He blends traditional harmonies with new chord structures in a subtle balancing act that leaves me breathless. I know from my many failed attempts at composition just how difficult this can be; a composer always wants to keep the listener interested without resorting to over-used, boring elements. Wilberg dances between these choices with a balletic blend of new and familiar components interlaced with new innovations. In my opinion, he is one of the most gifted, prolific arrangers in music history, and I was fortunate enough to be able to see him direct his own work. Wilberg is currently the music director for both the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Temple Square Chorale (Oxford University Press, n.d.). He writes arrangements and original compositions for this enormous choir, and many of those pieces also include accompaniments arranged for a full symphony orchestra that often includes a large pipe organ. In addition, his responsibilities include selecting the

2 Berrett 2 repertoire that the choir sings -- a monumental task, since they perform 400 pieces a year (Wilberg, 2009). As a musician, I find the mere thought of preparing that much music overwhelming. It becomes an even stronger statement when combined with the fact that they only rehearse 2-3 hours each week (Wilber, 2009). As far as I know, there is no other ensemble that performs more than a tenth of that number of pieces without a dramatic increase in the amount of rehearsal time. It is a remarkable accomplishment to get so many musicians and so many pieces performance-ready. Saturday s performance was done by the American Festival Chorus and Orchestra, under the direction of Craig Jessop. Wilberg guest-conducted the last four pieces, providing a markedly different conducting style to compare with that of Jessop. The concert was dedicated to Henry Hank G. and Betty A. Nowak, who gave a substantial donation to the Caine College of the Arts in Wilberg s name. The concert took place at 7:30 p.m. on 9 October 2010 in the Kent Concert Hall at Utah State University. This venue is large by some standards, but not nearly as big as most symphony halls. The Orchestra is a professional ensemble comprised of instrumentalists from the region including the members of the highly acclaimed Fry Street String Quartet of USU, members of the USU Music Faculty, professional musicians from the area, and outstanding USU music majors (americanfestivalchorus.org, n.d.). A volunteer organization, the choir is so prestigious that they actually are able to charge participants a $40 per semester fee, plus $50 per semester for music and a one-time concert attire fee of $ (americanfestivalchorus.org, n.d.). The large choir and its orchestra filled the stage to capacity, with only a few feet of room for the student soloists. I have never before had an opportunity to watch an excellent choir combined with an orchestra and pipe organ, so I eagerly anticipated the opening number. The program consisted of six sections, each of which was a different kind of composition. Jessop gave a short explanation of each one. The first section was three LDS hymns, Redeemer of Israel, Did You Think to Pray? and Come, Come Ye Saints. It was very odd to hear Mormon hymns in a secular setting, but these arrangements are so carefully crafted that they can stand alongside the works of any other composer and rightfully belong in the concert hall. The next group was three original compositions, Jubilate Deo from Tres Cantus Laudendi, Jesu, the Very Thought Is Sweet, and Let Peace Then Still the Strife. Jessop said that he chose these

3 Berrett 3 pieces to demonstrate Wilberg s talents as a composer in addition to his world-renowned abilities as an arranger. The third group of songs is collectively known as the Atlantic Bridge, an effort to combine British and American folk songs. These works were commissioned in 1997 for the King s Singers, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Utah Symphony Orchestra as part of the Tanner Gift of Music concert (americanfestivalchorus.org, n.d.). These songs included Some Folks, As I Walked through London City, The Dying Soldier, I m Runnin on, and Thou Gracious God, Whose Mercy Lends. After intermission, the choir sang three carols, I Saw Three Ships, The First Nowell, and Angels We Have Heard on High. Wilberg s arrangement of The First Nowell is so innovative and unusual that I am still trying to figure it out. He uses a contrasting melody in the accompaniment that has nothing in common with the carol except for being written in the same key. They don t even seem to have common chord progressions, but somehow he makes it work. Three days later, this arrangement is still running through my mind despite my usual Sunday and Monday musical activities. Wilberg s version of Angels We Have Heard on High has been performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir so many times that it is widely regarded as being one of his seminal works. I have heard many versions by other composers that appear to try to imitate Wilberg s style, but I don t think anyone has come close to matching his lush, rich harmonies or innovative countermelodies. The next piece, Homeward Bound, was performed as a tribute to honor the memories of nine students from the USU College of Agriculture and their instructor, who were killed in a car crash in October This piece was also performed at their memorial service. The final group of pieces was four American folk hymns: Saints Bound for Glory, Death Shall Not Destroy My Comfort, We ll Shout and Give Him Glory, and my favorite Wilberg arrangement of all, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Jessop asked Wilberg to conduct this final group, and it gave me a new perspective on the wide range of talents this astounding man possesses. Wilberg is a better conductor than Jessop; that is, his baton is easier to follow. Both use an upward stroke to indicate the beat, but Jessop uses wide, sweeping motions that I would have a hard time following because I wouldn't be able to predict when the stroke would finish its arc and begin the next one. In other words, I wouldn't know exactly when begin or end my pitch. In contrast, Wilberg directs crisply and cleanly, and it would be easy

4 Berrett 4 to follow him. On the other hand, directing a performance is a very small portion of what a conductor does. He is responsible for getting the performance ready, for directing the individual musicians into moving beyond a normal effort, reaching farther to create a new level of achievement. He is also responsible for getting each person to work with the others to create a group performance that is accurate and appealing. Both Jessop and Wilberg are masters at their art, directing large, multi-faceted choirs and orchestras with apparent ease. Wilberg compared his experience with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to a speeding train that takes on passengers but never lets anyone off (Wilberg, 2009). The train never stops to take a break; it just keeps going through holidays and important life events and somehow endures despite personnel changes and fluctuating concert schedules. This concert lasted well over two hours, and despite my exhaustion at the end of a long week, I was unprepared to see it end. I love live orchestral performances because recordings never sound quite right. This one had a wonderful orchestra, many of whom are USU music majors. I attended two schools during my time as a music major: BYU and Arizona State University. Both are considered great music schools, and neither had an orchestra as good as this one. I love pipe organs, and to have one combine with an orchestra was a rare treat. The final song was one of my very favorite pieces from any genre, and I was unwilling to hear the beauty stop at the end of it. I literally would have happily sat there through a second performance of this outstanding music. My life will be richer for having attended this magnificent event.

5 Berrett 5 Works Cited Mack Wilberg. Oxford University Press. ukcatalogue.oup.com, n.d. 12 October Web. < Mack Wilberg: Music Director Responsibilities. YouTube. youtube.com, 3 June October Web. < The Choral Music of Mack Wilberg. American Festival Chorus. americanfestivalchorus.org, n.d. 12 October Web. <

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