Friday, July 10, 2015

Salt Lake on the Hudson

Planning for my first trip to Salt Lake City in late June, I decided to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, only to discover they were on tour and would be at Carnegie Hall in the following week.

So, ironically, I saw them at home - my home, that is. Since I sing in an Episcopal church choir, I am interested in choral music and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has become one of those American monuments, like the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore, that is both a must-do and an apparent cliche.

I don't know what I thought I would encounter -- a fine choral group singing a few hymns, I suppose. However, the thing about monuments is that their familiarity may create a false sense of complacency and this certainly turned out to be the case with the singing Mormons.

A surreptitious photo snapped at Carnegie Hall. Chorus is seated behind orchestra. I'm not sure why there was a video projection of what seem to be cloud patterns on the stage wall.

What I discovered was a program of astonishing sophistication, with the musical intelligence of Music Director Mack Wilberg clearly evident. For example, throughout the first half of the program, Wilberg wove various arrangements of sections of the familiar hymn "Old Hundreth." Here's how it goes:

My photo from Temple Square: dominated by a magnificent Aeolian Skinner organ, vintage 1948, the interior of the Salt Lake Tabernacle - due to the building's shape - somewhat resembles an arena. The acoustics, however, are impeccable.

The choir sang the haunting "Requiem aeternam" from Wilberg's own Requiem. They used no books throughout the concert, exhibiting memorization of an impressive amount of music, and also played handbells on Pritchard's hymn "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling." Their sound is pure and clear, with about 200 voices onstage at Carnegie singing with remarkable diction, accompanied by the excellent 50-piece Orchestra at Temple Square.

The first half contained "Hymn Tune Settings of the Masters," featuring Mendelssohn's "Von Himmel hoch" and Holst's "Psalm 148," plus "19th Century Sacred Song" with Gounod's "Unfold, Ye Portals" and Rossini's "Cum Sancto Spiritu from Petite messe solennelle.

Ending the first half with "Old Hundredth," the choir drew out the final "Amen" with a long, long diminuendo that floated in the air like a single bell-like breath. "Now, Mr. Wilberg," I thought, "you're just showing off. That was amazing."

The program's second half was even more exciting, as this group of 99% white people sang a Russian song ("Glory!") by Rimsky-Korsakov, a Sephardic wedding song arranged by Wilberg and the American folk hymn "Pilgrim Song."

You never heard so many white folks sound so African as when the Mo-Tab swung into the Nigerian carol "Betelehemu," swaying from side to side with the rhythm, accompanied by African percussion and soloist Laurent Neu.

The choir's mastery of styles continued with two African-American spirituals - "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" and "I'm Runnin' On." Soloist Alex Boye brought intense expressiveness and nearly-James Brown moves to his performance. You can see him here:

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, N.Y., we've sung "Old Hundredth," "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" and most especially the Mormons' finale - the Wilhousky setting of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Wilberg gets to shape this number with an orchestra and an army of throats, but we produced a mighty sound with just 16 voices and our magnificent music director, Noel Hart, on the pipe organ.

At Carnegie Hall, it was just the last of many goosebump moments, courtesy of one of America's natural wonders. Enjoy:

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