Tabernacle Choir Conductors Discuss New Album, Name Change, and the Rigors of Choir Life

Contributed By Trent Toone, Deseret News

  • 26 March 2019

Mack Wilberg conducts The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square during the Sunday afternoon session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City on Sunday, October 7, 2018.  Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • Many people don’t realize the blood, sweat, and tears that go into The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performances.
  • The choir’s newest album highlights President Nelson’s focus on gathering Israel.

“We don’t take a couple of weeks to learn a piece. We don’t take a couple of hours to learn a piece. We take a couple of minutes to learn a piece. … That’s why they go through such a strenuous process to get into the choir.” — Mack Wilberg, conductor

The Tabernacle Choir conductors Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy seemed to like the last question of the interview the most.

What is it you wish more people knew, understood, or appreciated about The Tabernacle Choir?

At times, people have asked Wilberg what his real job is, as if he only shows up for a few hours a week and programs like Music and the Spoken Word just “magically happen,” he said.

“We make it look easy. That’s probably a good thing,” Wilberg said with a smile. “I don’t think people realize how much the choir does on so little time together. It’s a tribute to the choir members who come well prepared to do the task at hand. … It has to be that way. Otherwise we don’t accomplish our objective and our mission.”

Murphy nodded in agreement.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I had no idea how intense and fast-paced [the choir rehearsals are],’” Murphy said. “Some people think it’s all lollipops and moonbeams. But it’s pretty hard work. … But we don’t want them to know about all the blood, sweat, and tears.”

Nothing less than the best efforts of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square recently went into producing their new album, Let Us All Press On: Hymns of Praise and Inspiration.

The new album was one of several topics related to The Tabernacle Choir that Wilberg and Murphy recently discussed in a Deseret News interview. The Tabernacle Choir is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Let Us All Press On, the first album featuring hymns in several years, includes beloved classics such as “More Holiness Give Me,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “Hark, All Ye Nations!” “Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah,” and “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” among others.

The theme and title of the album reflects President Russell M. Nelson’s charge to press forward and help gather Israel, Wilberg said.

After discussing the new album, both choir conductors opened up about other aspects of life with The Tabernacle Choir.

“That definitely permeated our thoughts as we put this together,” Wilberg said. “The subtitle is Hymns of Praise and Inspiration. The other thing I think we wanted to portray in this particular recording is hope and joy. Then of course, as it says, inspiration, along with comfort and solace, affirming what we are all about.”

The trick to producing a good album—and this is something Murphy says Wilberg does well—is finding the right combination of “unity and contrast,” Murphy said.

“Especially for a compilation of hymns, I think it could be easy for it to all sound alike. This album does not do that,” Murphy said. “What he's so good at doing is finding variety, but you also listen to it and feel like there’s a unity to the whole thing.”

Ryan Murphy stands in front of the Orchestra at Temple Square after a performance. Photo by Debra Gehris, Deseret News Archives.

The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square have a new album called Let Us All Press On. Album cover provided by Deseret Book.

When asked if they each had a favorite hymn, the answer was no.

“I don’t,” Wilberg said. “They are all like children to me. I always say it’s the one I'm working on at the moment.”

What has it been like since the choir changed its name? What reaction have you noticed from people?

Both agreed it’s been a “smooth” transition.

“It has been very smooth, without any problem,” Wilberg said. “I think the ones who may have been most surprised are not members of the Church. They're a little more inquisitive of why it’s happened. But my experience has been as soon as I explain it, they understand.”

How is the role of a choir member evolving?

It’s becoming more “involved and intense,” the conductors said.

For example, the choir has increased Thursday rehearsals from two hours to two hours and 30 minutes. There are also more opportunities than ever before coming to the choir, Murphy said.

“Membership continually becomes more involved,” Wilberg said, “in some respects requiring more time, effort, and even physical stamina.”

How many songs does The Tabernacle Choir know to perform at any given time?

Wilberg said the choir performs between 300 and 400 pieces a year.

“We don’t take a couple of weeks to learn a piece. We don’t take a couple of hours to learn a piece. We take a couple of minutes to learn a piece,” Wilberg said. “That’s why they go through such a strenuous process to get into the choir.”

How difficult is it to get guest artists to come perform with the choir?

“Let’s say it’s a delightful challenge,” Wilberg said.

What personal satisfaction do you feel when an album like Let Us All Press On is released?

Murphy’s satisfaction comes from hoping it will help listeners appreciate the hymns in a new way.

“I love hymn arrangements because they allow you to take something that you probably already know very well and to see it in a new light,” Murphy said.

Wilberg admitted he can’t listen to the new CD like a fan because he’s still too close to it. “Perhaps when I’m older and sitting in a rocking chair,” Wilberg said with a grin.

“We don’t sit around and say, ‘Wow, isn’t that great? We’ve done this great thing.’ Honestly, I don’t go back and listen to many recordings that we’ve done before, because I’ve moved on,” Wilberg said. “Now, with that said, once in a while I do go back and listen to something, either because of necessity or because of curiosity, and not all the time, but much of the time, I enjoy it much more because there’s time and distance between it.”

In the end, both Wilberg and Murphy each expressed gratitude for the privilege of working with The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.

“It’s a thrill,” Murphy said.

“When it all comes together, there’s nothing quite like it,” Wilberg said.