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Melody works magic
by Christopher Reynolds January 10, 2019
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There’s nothing particularly Mormon, or American, about “Ubi Caritas.” It’s a Gregorian chant at least 11 centuries old, was rearranged by French composer Maurice Durufle in 1960 and has been sung by church choral groups around the world.

But I can tell you that when it is performed by a certain famous choir in a certain quirky old building in downtown Salt Lake City, that melody works a particular magic.

The voices rise and fall, singing a cappella in Latin. The sound ripples to the back of the hall, guided by the curving plaster ceiling. The final “amen” grows to 10, 15, 20 syllables, each one a slow-motion acrobat in flight.

That’s how it went on a recent Sunday morning at the Salt Lake Tabernacle at Temple Square, a singular American music venue commissioned by Brigham Young and completed in 1867.

The 360 singers who call this building home are known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — or rather, they were until Oct. 5, when leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renamed them the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

In the world beyond these walls, the group has been needled for its squeaky-clean image and song list, and for performing at President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

But the singers are a beloved avatar for the church, offering musical balm for all, backed by their own Twitter feed (since 2009) and YouTube channel (since 2012).

As for the building that houses them, one unimpressed 19th century visitor called it “a pumpkin half-buried in the sand.” To me, as light danced on its aluminum roof, the tabernacle looked like a surfacing submarine.

That shiny roof (a 1947 addition) is a great disguise for a frontier relic and a striking element among the landmark church buildings that make up Temple Square.

The site’s singular history is more than enough reason to eavesdrop on choir practice (most Thursday nights) or to see a broadcast performance (every Sunday morning) or to drop by to hear a pin drop (which happens hourly to show off the hall’s acoustics).

A Thursday night rehearsal in the tabernacle, free to the public at 7:30, is a good place to start.

Once you’re inside, look at the choir loft, where choir members will be meandering to their assigned seats, men on one side, women on the other, and making notes on their sheet music.

Music director Mack Wilberg probably will be up front with a microphone, delivering corrections and commendations with a dry wit: “Ladies, you sound great. Men, you’ve got to listen more to the ladies.”

To win a place in this group, singers must belong to the church, be at least 25, no older than 55, and live within 100 miles of Temple Square. Besides an audition, they must pass an interview and music theory test.

For the 1 in 5 applicants who makes the grade, there are hundreds of songs to learn and a year-round schedule of rehearsals, broadcasts, performances, and sometimes recording sessions and tours.

To make way for new blood, once choir members have sung for 20 years or have reached the year of their 60th birthday, they’re out.

Teamwork is central. Unlike much of show business, singing in the choir is about disappearing into a crowd, a priority that harmonizes with many LDS church teachings.

Oh, and there is no paycheck; all choir members are volunteers. Administration and logistics are handled by a general manager and a paid staff of about a dozen.

Meanwhile, outside Temple Square, ever-more-secular Salt Lake City (population about 200,000) offers ever more entertainment options.

The weekend of my visit, the Utah Symphony was in Abravanel Hall, the Damned were due to play the Depot, and a production of “The Rocky Horror Show” was nearing the end of its run on the Grand Theater stage.

Nobody pictured this in 1847, when the choir formed under church president Young. The church itself had been founded less than 20 years before by Joseph Smith in upstate New York.

Mormon pioneers had just begun settling in Utah, and the Salt Lake Valley was nearly empty.

Before long, Young was planning a temple (a tall, stone landmark that took 40 years to complete) and the tabernacle, which would be made of Utah pine, about 75 feet tall, 150 feet wide and 250 feet long, capped by a gently curving roof.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, SOUND

“Music & the Spoken Word,” a 30-minute melange of song, organ music and inspirational narration, began as a radio show in 1929.

By 1949, the choir was releasing its first commercial album on Columbia Records. By the 1960s, the broadcast was televised, and the choir was singing for presidents, touring the world, and working with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

More recent collaborators have included Audra McDonald, Yo-Yo Ma, James Taylor and most recently Kristin Chenoweth, who joined this year’s holiday shows.

On my Sunday morning, men wore dark suits and ties, and women were in beige gowns.

The tabernacle’s benches, typically arranged to hold as many as 3,000 listeners, were about two-thirds full. A church hostess warmed up the crowd and welcomed groups from Ecuador, Myanmar and Taiwan.

After the countdown to open the broadcast, a narrator welcomed us and organist Richard Elliott leaned over the keyboards.

Meanwhile, a sophisticated lighting system threw intense colors onto the curving wall behind the choir _ sometimes blue, sometimes purple, sometimes red, which made the gold-leaf organ pipes glow like flames.

Several hymns, folk songs and other pieces followed, including “Ubi Caritas.”

Edgy it was not. But those 360 voices, raised together, were something to hear. I eventually spotted Wood among the altos and Harmer with the baritones.

“I know there are a lot of people who enjoy doing stage productions and they like doing solos, and that’s never been my forte,” Wood had told me. “I have always loved being one of many in creating an amazing sound.”

“You don’t want 360 soloists,” Harmer had said.

In no time, the broadcast was winding up. It ended with the choir’s voices on “God be with you till we meet again” _ predictable, perhaps, but warm and comforting on a winter day.

Tribune News Service

 

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