Episode 8: Tabernacle Choir director Mack Wilberg joins Sarah Jane Weaver to explore the history of ‘America’s Choir’

For many audiences around the world, the annual Christmas concerts hosted by The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square have been a cherished way to celebrate the Christmas season each year. But with the current coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 holiday season will be a bit non-traditional, even for “America’s Choir.”

In the latest episode of the Church News Podcast, Tabernacle Choir Music Director Mack Wilberg and Choir President Ron Jarrett explore the extensive history of the choir and how their award-winning melodies can continue to warm listeners’ hearts this winter, despite the precautions that have cancelled live concerts this year.  

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Transcription

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  

The Christmas season is a time for celebration and family traditions, but with the current coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 holiday season is going to be a bit non-traditional this year. For audiences around the world, the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s Christmas Special and concerts have always been an annual way of celebrating the season. While an abundance of precautions have cancelled live concerts this year, there are still some wonderful ways to continue to blend magical music of the choir into the festive season. 

Today, I sit down with Tabernacle Choir Music Director Mack Wilberg, as well as Choir President Ron Jarrett, to explore the extensive history of America’s choir, and how their award-winning music could continue to warm listeners’ hearts this winter. Thank you both for being with us today.

Mack Wilberg: Oh, you’re welcome.

Ron Jarrett: Thank you for inviting us.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Let’s start with you, Brother Jarrett, because of the legacy of the choir, and because it has such a vast repertoire of music, much of it has been online, and people can access that online, even though they cannot watch or hear the choir in person this year.

1:27

Ron Jarrett: Well, it gives us an opportunity to use the wonderful technology that’s available to continue to share everything that we have previously recorded. And that would include Music and the Spoken Word, our weekly program, and wonderful concerts, both in the summer and in the winter, at Christmas time. So they can be picked up and listened to and viewed just about any time, anywhere. It’s a wonderful opportunity. 

Sarah Weaver: Now Brother Jarrett, it’s my understanding that the choir’s reach has actually grown during the pandemic.

1:59  

Ron Jarrett: It has. You know, more people have been searching for ways to bring some type of peace, some type of assurance, some type of love into their lives. And so they have found us or they have found the time now to pick us up on various stations digitally around the world. We have really pushed a lot of European and Scandinavian countries to pick us up. And we’re seeing great results there. And that has led to other locations around the world that have picked us up, including the Philippines, India, Central and South America. So we’re really expanding our reach during this very difficult time.

Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, you mentioned something that I found particularly interesting, and that’s this idea that people turn to music for hope and peace, that it can actually deepen some of the experiences they’re having this Christmas season. Brother Wilberg, can you comment on the power of music?

3:01  

Mack Wilberg: Well, I think that music oftentimes can bring to the soul things that even the spoken word is not capable of. And I think that this is why people throughout the world listen to music so much. And as the president has already said, through technology, we are able to share so much of our music, even though we are not currently meeting. And always, I think at the forefront of our minds, as we have performed over these many years, and particularly in the last couple of years. bringing hope and peace and inspirations in its many forms to as many people as possible has always been something we’ve been trying to do. Again, we’re grateful for the technology of the present day that enables us to be able to continue to do that.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Brother Jarrett, I think that music is a great unifier. Has that been your experience as well?

3:58  

Ron Jarrett: Oh, yes. Yes, it really is. For a singer, as you sing, even your heart begins to beat in the same rhythm as everybody else’s. It’s just this way of taking control of your body. And when you’re listening, it brings so many great pieces of your experience in life, your belief in life, your happiness, or even your trials together with someone else and the music can say to you, “You’re okay, you’re gonna be fine. You’re going to have the strength or the courage to go on.” So is unifying your thoughts with those of many, many others.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Brother Wilberg, I’ve always felt that music, I’ve used it as an opportunity to feel closer to God, to feel closer to the Divine. Can you comment on that?

4:49  

Mack Wilberg: Yes, I mean, there are many types of music. I always say what is inspirational to one person is not inspirational to another and that’s, for instance, why we do such a breadth of music: to try to touch the hearts of as many people as possible. And that’s why we do, for instance, hymns are a very big part of the repertoire of the choir, but also music of the master composers plays a big role in the repertoire, as well as folk music, and even some inspirational what we would call popular music plays a role in that. I always say, if you didn’t like one thing, I think you’ll perhaps like another thing that we do. And that’s why we, again, do a wide variety of music and have quite a large repertoire.

Santino Fontana and the "Sesame Street" Muppets perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the choir's annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.
Santino Fontana and the “Sesame Street” Muppets perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the choir’s annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we use music to celebrate all kinds of seminal events – at temple dedications, it’s an important part of general conference, we even make sure that it’s an important part of our Sunday worship services. Brother Jarrett, can you talk about why music is so important in some of these really important events?

5:58  

Ron Jarrett: I think music in those events just magnifies the feeling that you already know you’re going to have, or that you are currently experiencing. And it just kind of draws out of you that recognition that there is something greater than just me by myself, the synergistic approach of everybody focusing on one thing, and the music leads us into that focus. And it makes it so that everyone can feel the immense spiritual strength that comes from gathering together with music. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, let’s shift a little. This year has been an unprecedented time. The choir has not been able to meet, they haven’t been able to gather, or perform or practice. Talk about the impact that has had on each of you personally, and let’s start with Brother Wilberg.

6:50  

Mack Wilberg: Making music is generally a group effort, unless you’re a soloist, obviously. Singing in a choir requires at least four people, and in our case, over 300 people to do what we love doing. And I think that not meeting, of course has been very, I don’t know if devastating is too strong of a word, but it certainly has been unsettling. I always say that we know that this will pass and that we will be together again, it’s just a matter of when that time will come. And so there’s still hope. And I think that through this experience of not being able to meet together, I think that we’ve learned some things. And I think that we will savor being able to make music again when the time comes. And I think that my hope is that we’ll even be able to create even more meaningful music in the times that will come in the future.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah. And you have not been sitting idle in this time, I suspect you’ve been doing a little bit of composing.

7:51  

Mack Wilberg: I have. I’ve been doing a lot. Some of the work that I’ve been doing have been things that I felt that we’ve needed for a while but simply didn’t have the time to do them. And then there have been a few things that I’ve been working on that I’ve wanted to do for a while and simply didn’t have the time. And so no, this certainly has not been wasted time. And I can hardly wait to get back together to be able to do some of these things.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Brother Jarrett, you are also probably looking forward to the time when you are back together again with the choir.

8:20  

Ron Jarrett: Oh, yes. You know, initially, we’re all so busy. We thought initially that, “Oh, being stuck at home, maybe that’s not so bad. I can take care of you things I want to do here. I can get to know my family a little bit better.” But then you start to feel like, “Oh, there’s something really missing here. And I’m missing these people and I’m missing their music.” And how can we get back and do this and think of ways we can do it together even though the situation doesn’t allow it. So yes, getting back together will be such a joy. And as Mack has said, the opportunity to be together and to relish what we’ve had, that maybe have taken for granted, this will be a joy for us for sure.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Let’s go back in time, just one year, when the choir Christmas concert featured Tony Award winning star Kelli O’Hara and actor Richard Thomas. How can that Christmas concert continue to ripple into this Christmas season? Let’s start with you, brother Jarrett. And then we’ll shift that to Mack. 

Ron Jarrett, left, president of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Kelli O’Hara, acclaimed singer and actress, actor Richard Thomas, and Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir, talk about the 2019 Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir concert in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square will perform their annual Christmas concerts in the Conference Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Dec. 12–14, 2019, at 8:00 p.m.
Ron Jarrett, left, president of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Kelli O’Hara, acclaimed singer and actress, actor Richard Thomas, and Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir, talk about the 2019 Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir concert in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square will perform their annual Christmas concerts in the Conference Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Dec. 12–14, 2019, at 8:00 p.m. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

9:24 

Ron Jarrett:  Every year for nearly 20 years, we’ve been able to put a live Christmas performance together for the residents of the Salt Lake Valley and neighboring areas and over 60,000 people every year come to this wonderful experience. And every year following that, we send this out through television through PBS and through BYUTV, and it used to be KUTV here in Salt Lake. So these have been shared then to millions of people every year. So it is a wonderfully strong tradition that isn’t going to go away. And we’ll see this wonderful performance by Kelli O’Hara and Richard Thomas again this year in December and it would be wonderful for everybody to have that experience either again, or for the first time and be able to enjoy that wonderful experience that it was.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, Brother Jarrett, I suspect that picking a favorite Christmas concert for you would be like picking a favorite child.

10:25  

Ron Jarrett: It is.

Sarah Jane Weaver: But you know, we all have our favorites. My producer KellieAnn, her favorite is the Sesame Street Christmas concert. And we have that Sesame Street clip.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs with the "Sesame Street" Muppets during its annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs with the “Sesame Street” Muppets during its annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

10:37  

Clip from 2014 Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert featuring Muppets: Mr. Wilberg! Mr. Wilberg! I thought of a way that I could be part of the concert. Okay, what would you like to do? Well, I thought I could conduct like you do.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Can you each talk about, let’s start with you, Brother Jarrett, can you talk about some highlights of your favorite Christmas concerts?

11:31  

Ron Jarrett: So yes, there are some highlights. I remember the year when we were honoring Gail Halverson as the Candy Bomber, and we had parachutes dropping from the ceiling. That was really an emotional time.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Tom Brokaw was the narrator that year and actually told part of that story.

11:48  

Clip from previous 2012 Christmas concert on the Candy Bomber: That Christmas Eve, the 27-year-old American pilot blinked back tears. The stars overhead could not be more beautiful than skies overflowing with parachutes, tumbling to earth in a brilliant display of Christmas generosity and joy. His father was right. From little things come big things. Hal and his cockpit pulled back on the yoke as his wheels rolled on to the familiar one-way. This is the real spirit of Christmas, to give whatever we have no matter how small of a gift. And in that moment, Hal Halverson prayed for the courage to never give anything less.

Parachutes fall from the ceiling of the Conference Center as Tom Brokaw tells the story of Gail Halvorsen, the "Candy Bomber," during the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.
Parachutes fall from the ceiling of the Conference Center as Tom Brokaw tells the story of Gail Halvorsen, the “Candy Bomber,” during the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

12:33  

Ron Jarrett: Another one for me was the flying that we did when we were telling the story of Christmas and looking out over the old cities, and the narration that went on. That was truly an amazing experience. It was just, there’s something in every single performance that captures the heart. And just you l think back, “Oh, I remember that. I remember that.” Because it was just such a great experience that was put together by Mack and others who put this whole thing together and work so hard to make it come about.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great. Well, Brother Wilberg, will you walk down memory lane for us too?

13:13  

Mack Wilberg: Well, it’s a little bit difficult for me to do that, because I’m always sort of living in the present. And so I’ll just focus on the program that so many will be able to see this coming season, which was, as you’ve already mentioned, the concert with Kelli O’Hara and Richard Thomas. And a couple of highlights for that for me, was the beautiful reading and presentation that Richard Thomas gave of a very moving Christmas story by the American author, Pearl Buck. And it’s really a story about home and family. As I was writing the music for that presentation, I was very touched by the story of a father and a son, and how this son does a very simple thing as a Christmas gift to his father. I think that people will be very moved by that.

Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

14:03  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Let’s listen to a portion of that.

14:05

Clip from 2019 Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert: And then it struck him like lightning: the true joy of Christmas is to love and to awaken love. The children are grown and the house was empty and the laughter of little ones would remain a memory. And yet because of his father’s love, and because of hers, love was alive in him. And the joy of Christmas was his to give.

14:37  

Mack Wilberg: As well as the really remarkable talents of Kelli O’Hara, who does a little bit of everything. She is so well known for not only for her wonderful Broadway performances, and you’ll hear a little bit of that music but also, she is also a classically trained singer. And you hear some of those elements as well in her singing. Why don’t we listen to that now?

15:11

Clip from 2019 Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert: (Kelli O’Hara singing) In the little village of Bethlehem, there lay a child one day, and the sky was bright with a holy light for the place where Jesus lay. Alleluia, oh how the angels sang. Alleluia, how it rang. And the sky was bright with a holy light, ‘twas the birthday of a King.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Beautiful.

15:55  

Mack Wilberg: I should mention that the 16-minute PBS showing of that program will be on December 14 on national PBS, and again on Christmas Eve. And then also the BYUTV version, which is the full concert, which is a 90-minute presentation. will be on Thursday, December 17, at 6 p.m. and at 9 p.m. All of these are Mountain Standard Time airings. And then also, we always make available the DVD and the CD, as well as this year, a beautiful book, which is this Pearl Buck story that I’ve already mentioned. And so there are many ways to experience this concert and of any year where we are indeed at home. I think that this is a particularly meaningful concert that people can experience.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Let’s have Brother Jarrett do this, on where people can go to the Tabernacle Choir to hear the music or find the music. 

Brother Jarrett: if people are wanting to know where they can go and pick up the music that we’ve done, the recordings that are available and so forth, we do have a website that is just wonderful, and that’s tabchoir.org. Tabchoir.org is our web, and if you /Christmas, you’ll get into all the Christmas stuff. You can go to shop and buy any of the great music that we have available. And there are links to our YouTube station, and that is filled with wonderful music from concerts and weekly broadcasts. So it’s all available out there thanks to the marvelous work of the digital technology that we live in. So please go and pick it up for every wherever you are available. It’s there for you. We’ll be there for you.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, it is true that Christmas tends to bring us all to feelings of home and family, and the pandemic has turned many of our focuses to home and family further. Brother Jarrett, Do you have feelings at this time about home and family as well?

18:00  

Ron Jarrett: Oh, yes. Because of our busy schedules, my wife and I have been going 100 miles an hour in different directions, and being in the same house all the time together is like being in the mission field with missionaries. It’s just great to have that time to be together and to talk and to work and to do things together that we just don’t take time to do in our normal everyday life. But at the same time, I’ve missed seeing the rest of my family and having them with me. They’re in Arizona, and so they’re a long ways away. And that’s hard to just talk to them on the phone or FaceTime them or something because you just want to be there and hold them. So yes, home and family is so important and we will all enjoy our Christmas together in different locations, but because the Spirit will be there through the music that we will enjoy.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, Brother Wilberg, you probably had to channel some pretty intense feelings of home as you were writing the music to go with last year’s Christmas concert. Do some of those feelings resonate with you into this Christmas season?

19:06  

Mack Wilberg: Absolutely. I think that one of the silver linings of these challenging times is that it makes you realize the things that are really important, the things that have the most value in your life and certainly home, family, loved ones and friends would certainly top the list. I’m sure not only for myself, but for everyone else. And we can be grateful for the support and the love of those who mean so much to us. And, again, coming back to this year to the Christmas concert that will be available this year that was of course performed last year, and I think that people will come away feeling very much the importance of love and family and friends.

Tom Brokaw greets Gail Halvorsen, the "Candy Bomber," during the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.
Tom Brokaw greets Gail Halvorsen, the “Candy Bomber,” during the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Sarah Jane Weaver: Brother Wilberg, you mentioned gratitude, and President Nelson has asked each of us this year to give thanks. He’s asked us to actually do that in a very proactive way on social media. So what are you thankful for, despite the obvious disruptions and disappointments of this season?

20:08  

Mack Wilberg: I’m grateful for the most important things, which are family and friends, home, being able to share certain gifts, and we all have gifts that we can share with others. And we can share them in various ways. And in this day and age of miraculous technology, we can share them, really with the world. And so I’m grateful, I feel very blessed in my life to have not only been able to do many things, but continue to do many things that hopefully can bring blessings to others.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Brother Jarrett, I’d love you to weigh in on that as well. Is there something you’re particularly grateful for this season?

20:49  

Ron Jarrett: Well, I think I have to agree with all of what Mack has said about being grateful for home and family and friends. I am grateful for good health, and grateful that we have people who are willing to sacrifice their time, energy, strength and talent to make it possible for us to maintain our good health, that would be an addition I would put on there

21:10  

Mack Wilberg: I would certainly agree with that. There’s a saying that if you have your health, you have everything. And I think that particularly again, during these challenging times, I think that we can all agree that if we have our health, then we can be grateful for so many, many other things.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, this Christmas season, I am particularly grateful for music, for the unity, hope, healing, peace, the joy that it brings so many people. As we conclude today, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast. We have every one of our guests answer the question what I know now, and I’d actually like both of you to do this in two parts, because I’m interested in what you know after your work with the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square. And then if you’ve learned anything in the past pandemic year, that has changed your perspective, we’d love to know what you know about that. So let’s start with Brother Wilberg. What do you know, after serving and working with the Tabernacle Choir? And how has the pandemic influenced that knowledge?

22:12  

Mack Wilberg: Well, I can answer both of those the same way. And I’ve always known this, but I appreciate it even more, now that we’re not able to do it, I will say that you cannot do it on your own. There’s only so much that person can do as an individual. And certainly with the choir and the orchestra, we cannot do what we do, unless we are all there together, and we’re united in one effort to bring beauty, peace and love to the world. And since the pandemic has been happening, I’ll just say the same thing. We’re just grateful that we have a repository of music that we’re able to use right now, because we certainly can’t do it individually. And we cannot obviously meet at this point. And so I’m just grateful for the many, many, many who, over the years have been able, been engaged in making beautiful music. We look forward to the future.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Brother Jarrett, why don’t you tell us what you know now?

23:14  

Ron Jarrett: I know that having been a choir member myself, how wonderful it is to be together with good people and sing beautiful music under a very capable and talented director. But now I know that these volunteers, so many of them give so much time to be able to meet two or three times a week and have that experience together. To me, that is just a sacrifice of their time that brings so much happiness to the world, so much music, that good music that people can relate to. I am so grateful for that. And I know that there are great blessings that come from great music. When it comes to the pandemic, I know that there’s many who suffer. I know that there’s so many who are ill, or have lost family members, or have had to change their lives in so many different ways. But the constant presence of good music brings peace to their lives.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And in closing, the hymns of thegGospel, or music that is written or performed in praise of the Lord, of God, of the Savior, have to have deepened and strengthened your testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’d love each of you to conclude today by sharing your testimonies with us. Let’s start with Brother Wilberg.

24:44  

Mack Wilberg: Well, I’m just grateful for all of the blessings in my life and all the blessings in my life that the gospel brings. And I am grateful for the gift of music in my life, the power of music that can increase our testimonies, whether it’s singing the hymns, or it’s listening to great music. I think all of these elements as they relate to music are a powerful force in not only giving us but strengthening our testimonies. And I, again, I’m just very grateful for not only what I’ve just talked about, but all the other many blessings that I have in my life as a result of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And Brother Jarrett, we’ll give you the last word.

25:30  

Ron Jarrett: You know, it is a blessing to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because there is so much good and so much value in the teachings of the Savior, to know that He is a man who will love us always and help us to return to our Father’s presence. The choir sings this song called “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” And that, to me, was one of the greatest songs that I ever had the opportunity to perform. And I still have to take part when I hear the choir sing that because, excuse me for being so emotional, because it is a testimony of the Savior, Jesus Christ and our relationship with him. I’m most grateful for that.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Thanks to our guest, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel, or with other news and updates about the Church on thechurchnews.com.