90-year celebratory broadcast reflects Tabernacle Choir’s rich past while anticipating its limitless future

How does The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square celebrate 90 years of broadcasting their globally watched weekly program “Music & the Spoken Word”?

Easy answer: They throw a party.

On Saturday evening, July 18, the choir and orchestra will celebrate its nonagenarian status with a special pre-recorded program dubbed “Music for a Summer Evening: Celebrating 90 Years of Broadcasting.” 

The program begins at 7 p.m. MDT.

Saturday’s 60-minute broadcast will feature a variety of selected performances by the choir interspersed with interviews and performances of popular guest artists who have appeared with the choir in recent years — including Kristin Chenoweth, Sissel and Bryn Terfel.

Another “birthday” highlight to watch for Saturday: the five Tabernacle organists performing the William Tell Overture in a virtual quintet.

Heidi Swinton, historian for the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, talks with members of the media about Saturday’s 90th anniversary celebratory broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” during a press conference at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 17, 2020.
Heidi Swinton, historian for the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, talks with members of the media about Saturday’s 90th anniversary celebratory broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” during a press conference at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 17, 2020. Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Mack Wilberg, the Tabernacle Choir’s music director, told the Church News the remarkable longevity of “Music & the Spoken Word” can be attributed to its commitment to uplift and inspire listeners, regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds.

“The broadcast,” he said, “brings hope, joy, peace and comfort to people.”

Its broad musical repertoire, he added, is designed “to bring a little something for everyone.” It’s not unusual for the weekly broadcast to include hymns, folk songs, beloved spirituals and even uplifting popular music.

Thanks to the internet’s global reach, today’s broadcasts know few borders.

“It has always been ecumenical — and people from various backgrounds and beliefs can tune in and be inspired,” said Wilberg.

Despite its weekly run stretching across nine decades, Wilberg said everyone associated with the choir is committed to never allow the broadcast to become commonplace.

A look at the 90-year impact of ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ — the longest running continuous radio program

“You want to make sure there is constant variety — but, at the same time, you want to make sure there’s cohesion. You want to find a balance … and, much of the time, the musical selections are based upon the [spoken word] message of the day.”

Choir historian Heidi Swinton said the ongoing pandemic has certainly affected operations for the choir and orchestra. For the time being, a live “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcast is not an option. But the message and reach of the choir, orchestra and weekly broadcast have always proven immune to viruses and other historic challenges.

“This program has been driven by its consistent message of hope and peace in difficult times,” said Swinton. “‘Music & the Spoken Word’ has always brought a spirit into people’s lives that they want more of, so they tune back in on a weekly basis.

“It has spread around the world.” 

Bishop Gerald Caussé, Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and adviser to The Tabernacle Choir organization, added: “Music is an international language — sacred music, in particular. When the choir sings, there is no language anymore. There are no borders. Music is a way for the Church to reach out to all the world, all people, and communicate with them from the heart.” 

Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, with members of the media about Saturday’s 90th anniversary celebratory broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” during a press conference at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 17, 2020.
Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, with members of the media about Saturday’s 90th anniversary celebratory broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” during a press conference at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 17, 2020. Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News

These are, of course, unusual times. Traditionally, the choir and orchestra gather together this time of year to perform a Pioneer Day-themed concert in the Conference Center. COVID-19 sabotaged this year’s plans.

Wilberg laughed when asked Friday if there’s a chapter on managing global pandemics in the Choir’s “Music Director Owner’s Manual.”

“I always say that 95% of the things that the choir and orchestra do happened with a microphone in front of them — and probably about 75% of everything we do happens in front of a television camera.

“So it’s a great blessing, during this challenging time, that we have so much from which to draw in order to make sure the broadcast continues from week to week” with previously recorded material.

As a historian, Swinton appreciates the choir and orchestra’s rich history — including the weekly worldwide broadcast. But she’s equally enthused about their collective future and continuing capacity to bring peace to listeners around the world. She points to the ways the choir is utilizing its many online opportunities as evidence of its ability to remain progressive in delivering its message to audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

“The choir has a great tradition, in terms of what it offers to its audiences,” she said. “But I think it’s also very agile. It can adapt and change and make adjustments.”

Saturday’s commemorative concert will be available worldwide on the following broadcast and internet channels: TheTabernacleChoir.orgThe Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square YouTube channelBroadcasts.ChurchofJesusChrist.org and Latter-day Saint Channel; and by using the AlexaChoir skill. 

Fans can also watch the concert on BYUtv, BYUtv.org and the BYUtv app on Sunday, July 19, at 5 p.m. MDT.