When the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square present their Easter concert April 14 and 15, they will premiere a new work, “A Cloud of Witnesses,” the latest collaboration between musical director Mack Wilberg and librettist David Warner.
The piece focuses on the 40-day period between the resurrection of Christ and His ascension into heaven, a period of time that Brother Wilberg sees as very important though, in the Latter-day Saint faith tradition, it might not in the past have received as much attention as the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
“We started talking about it probably about a year ago and, off and on, fitting it in between other things,” Brother Wilberg said of the project.
What has resulted is a creation that is, at the same time, concise and profound.
In program notes written for the concert, Luke S. Howard, associate professor in the School of Music at Brigham Young University, describes the work as gathering “multiple witnessing stories into a single tapestry, drawing on accounts from all four of the Gospel writers and the opening of the Acts of the Apostles. ...
“A different composer might have created a full-length two-hour oratorio out of these accounts (and there is certainly enough material to permit such a treatment) but Wilberg and Warner decided on a shorter form of 20-25 minutes in which the many manifestations of the risen Christ to His followers intersect in close succession, building dramatic momentum into a panoramic sweep.”
Here are revisited through music the accounts of the risen Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, the disciples on the road to Emmaus and, finally, the 11 apostles who saw Him ascend into the heavens.
The phrase “A Cloud of Witnesses” is original to the piece, as reflected in the closing words of the libretto:
So be ye witnesses!
A cloud of witnesses
Of Christ who lives
And has all power given in heaven and earth,
To heal us from our sin,
And make us whole in Him
Until the gospel raineth forth from us
To bless our kin,
And bring us home to Him!
Then in your hearts receive,
And to the end believe,
His promise, “Lo, I am with you
“The piece ends with ‘alway’ repeated over and over until it fades away,” Brother Wilberg said.
He observed, “It took a lot to get them to believe; they kept saying, ‘We have to see this.’ And yet they would see and they wouldn’t believe.”
In the end, with the reality of the Resurrection and the Savior’s gift engraven in their hearts, they became witnesses, “a cloud of witnesses.”
Brother Wilberg and Brother Warner approached their collaboration on this piece in what some might view as a counterintuitive manner. Rather than having the words set down first with the music to be built around them (or, perhaps, vice versa) their method was more nuanced, more interactive.
“I’m fortunate in that not everybody can do what David does in taking what I do and then working around that,” Brother Wilberg explained. “But with that said, he gives me the ideas before I do anything with the music. So it’s not like I’m just stabbing in the dark, because if I were, it probably wouldn’t be very good.”
Thus, Brother Warner writes down ideas, and Brother Wilberg “gets them swirling” in his head.
“I sort of close myself off from the world for about a week just to get started, to get ideas going,” he said. “Then I call him back to come over and hear what I’ve got.
“So off and on since September, I’ve been working on the music knowing where we’re headed.”
Through the process, Brother Warner has the capacity to adjust the words, the meter, the timing, to fit Brother Wilberg’s musical ideas.
Brother Wilberg can hear the composition in his mind as he writes it out, putting down all the parts at once, beginning with the piccolos and flutes and adding in the middle and lower parts.
With “A Cloud of Witnesses,” the Wilberg-Warner team continued an innovation they experimented with in an earlier scriptural work, “The Prodigal Son.”
As explained by Brother Howard, “In traditional sacred dramas, where each character in the story is customarily represented by a soloist, the chorus often acts as ‘the people’ or reflects on the action with commentary. But by having the choir declaim the words of these individuals, Wilberg universalizes their experiences and feelings. We don’t, for example simply hear Mary’s or Peter’s thoughts and words — rather, the choir and audience experience them communally, and approach more closely a personal and empathetic understanding of their import.”
Like the master composers of yesteryear, Brother Wilberg puts pen to manuscript paper and writes out his musical score by hand, though many these days rely on musical notation computer software to do that.
“I don’t know to turn on a computer,” he said with characteristically self-deprecating humor.
Instead he sends his handwritten work to copyists Steve and Jayme Smith — a husband-wife team — who enter the notation into a computer program.
“The really great thing about technology, the way it is now, is that they can play it back for me and I can hear the mistakes, like leaving out an accidental or something, which, when you get into an orchestral rehearsal, is a huge deal.”
In the old days, when all composing was done by hand, the first rehearsal was spent just correcting all the errors, he said.
Nowadays, “when you get into the orchestral rehearsal, the score is essentially error-free. That’s why we can be so productive today with the choir and we can do so many things, because it is not quite as laborious as it used to be to make these things happen.”
He considers the computer a blessing as a tool to be used in composition. “I love it; I just don’t know how to do it.”
Musically gifted even as a piano student in his boyhood, he began composing music at the age of 10. While in junior high school, he entered a PTA Reflections contest with a composition he titled “Emery County Suite,” the name taken from his home locale in eastern Utah. He won the state contest.
“I think I won something in the national too, but I don’t remember what it was.”
Brother Wilberg is effusive in his praise of his partner, who for many years was the managing director of the Priesthood Department of the Church and is currently an Area Seventy.
“David has been a silent contributor for many years,” he said. “All of the narrations we’ve done at the Christmas concerts, with the exception of one several years ago, have been his genius. I don’t know what I would do without him.
“I remember when he was a student at BYU. It was my first year teaching there, about 1984. I just sort of watched him develop over the years. As I said, he has been a silent contributor, never asking for any acknowledgment.”
The Easter concert will also include a performance of the Beethoven oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”
“That ends at the Garden of Gethsemane, so we’re sort of doing the pre- and then the post-” with regard to the Resurrection, Brother Wilberg observed.