Expect 2021 to be a ‘go’ for resilient Tabernacle Choir

One day, hopefully soon, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square will return to performing live for its weekly broadcast and during general conference in front of thousands.

But don’t expect the storied choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square to simply “go back” to what they were before the ongoing pandemic disrupted their traditional concerts and schedules.

“No, we are moving forward to what we should be,” said choir president Ron Jarrett.

Such optimistic resilience allowed the choir and orchestra to extend its global reach during a year that was defined by uncertainty. And as 2021 takes its own maiden steps, Jarrett and his fellow choir leaders don’t have time or interest to focus on past disruptions.

There’s work to do, improvements to be made and upcoming concerts, broadcasts and tours to organize and execute.

Still, anyone associated with the choir and orchestra — from the scores of performers to the sound technicians and wardrobe specialists — are envisioning that moment when music director Mack Wilberg stands at the front of the musicians, raises his baton and, collectively, they “make the air with music ring.”

“I think about that every day,” said Wilberg. “We will all be very grateful to be together. We will not take anything for granted.”

Associate music director Ryan Murphy anticipates the emotion when the choir and orchestra reconnect, in real time, with their vast, worldwide audience. 

“We’re going to feel things more deeply than we did before,” he said. “There was already much passion – but that passion will be that much greater when we are able to serve again and share again.”

Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, and Ryan Murphy, associate music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, pose for a portrait at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.
Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, and Ryan Murphy, associate music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, pose for a portrait at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

2020: A year defined by gratitude and grit

Wilberg has served as music director for over a decade. He is well-equipped to manage the traditional challenges that may face a choir and orchestra charged with inspiring, comforting and uplifting their wide range of listeners.

But 2020 was like nothing Wilberg could have imagined. On March 13, the choir and orchestra – along with the Bells at Temple Square — were placed on a hiatus that continues to this day.

“When we first found out that we couldn’t meet together, we thought it would last maybe a month,” he said. “In fact, we were still hoping to sing at the April 2020 general conference. To think that we will soon be going on over a year apart … it’s humbling.”

Humbling — but not debilitating.

Of course, Wilberg and Murphy miss their weekly association with the choir and orchestra members. And performing in front of a live audience is elemental to the respective musical organizations. 

But despite the disappointments, both men regard 2020 as a year replete with highlights and accomplishments.

For one, the weekly “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcast — featuring re-airs of prior broadcasts — reached audiences in record numbers during the pandemic. With many people staying home on Sundays, the average number of broadcast views on YouTube alone increased six times from its pre-COVID-19 numbers. 

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performs during “Music & the Spoken Word” before the Sunday morning session of the 189th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performs during “Music & the Spoken Word” before the Sunday morning session of the 189th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Since August, weekly episodes have been translated in eight additional languages — stretching the choir’s broadcast reach across Europe, Asia and the Americas. And while the choir performances during the pandemic have been rebroadcasts, original “Spoken Word” messages were added during the year’s final quarter, providing words of comfort written for challenging times.

Meanwhile the choir enriched general conferences in April and October, again utilizing prior recordings.

In April, a new choir logo was unveiled, along with an enhanced “digital first” strategy aimed at increasing the choir and orchestra’s relevance and ability to evolve in a changing media environment. 

The choir’s May 1 release of its single track “Duel of the Fates” on the Spotify digital streaming service was a harbinger of its commitment to that strategy.

“It has been a surprisingly busy time,” said Murphy, adding the Lord’s hand can be traced in the details of the many pandemic-era modifications and adjustments.

The music world’s appreciation for the choir has also proven immune to the virus. In October, England’s classical-music.com included the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square on its “Best 10 Choirs in the World” list.

Each highlight only deepens Wilberg’s gratitude for the divinely-guided mission of the choir and orchestra. 

“We’re really looking forward,” he said, “to coming together again with renewed energy and renewed appreciation for this experience and what it brings to people.”

Looking forward

Jarrett expects 2021 to again be rich in history for both the choir and orchestra.

The musical term “fermata” — meaning a pause or hold  — seems an apt description of where the organizations have been for much of the past year. 

Ron Jarrett, President of the Tabernacle Choir, speaks at a press conference at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016.
Ron Jarrett, President of the Tabernacle Choir, speaks at a press conference at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. Credit: Laura Seitz

“Now we’re anxious to come back together,” he said. “We’ve recognized how much we’ve missed one another — and the opportunity of having music so prominent in our weekly lives.”

As with so many other things, the pandemic will decide when the choir and orchestra can regroup this year for live rehearsals and performances. But there are still certainties.

On March 26, Handel’s “Messiah” will be streamed to celebrate the Easter season. The choir and orchestra’s 2018 performance of the beloved oratorio will be enhanced with updated background information and features. 

The “Messiah” broadcast “will offer a fresh new look to a beautiful and familiar sound,” said Jarrett. Check tabchoir.org/messiah for developing details.

Meanwhile, the annual summer concerts, “Music for a Summer Evening,” will be performed on July 22, and July 23, 2021, subject to pandemic restrictions. The choir and orchestra present this concert each year in conjunction with annual Pioneer Day celebrations.  

The Tabernacle Choir performs Handel's Messiah during a concert in the Tabernacle in April 2015.
The Tabernacle Choir performs Handel’s Messiah during a concert in the Tabernacle in April 2015.

More details will be available closer to the summer concerts. 

Plans are already underway, added Jarrett, for this year’s annual Christmas concert and holiday broadcasts.

The pandemic postponed the choir and orchestra’s 2020 tour of several countries in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. For now, the 2021 iteration of that international tour remains a go for later this year. And again, the tour schedule and itinerary will ultimately depend upon how the virus is impacting the host nation. 

“But we’re ready to go,” said Jarrett.