'The Mormon Choir Tabernacle'

Upgrades in the Temple Square venue have helped with efficiency and acoustics

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

Mack Wilberg conducts a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for "Music and the Spoken Word" in the refurbished Tabernacle on Temple Square.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

Sunday morning.

The call comes at 9:29: one minute.

Then ...45 seconds

At 30 seconds, the choir stands.

Twenty seconds, 15 ... 10 ... five seconds. ...

Mack Wilberg, who will be conducting the first number raises his baton.

Four ... three ... two ... one ...

And the music begins: "Gently raise the sacred strain. ... "

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir begins its 4,072th "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast, continuing its 79th year. And for the next 30 minutes, choir members will sing with their hearts and their voices — as they did last week and the week before. As they will next week and the week after.

They make it look easy ... smooth ... flawless. And yet, this precise moment in time is the culmination of not only countless minutes, hours, years of preparation, but also the unending efforts of a tireless, behind-the-scenes support staff that works cameras, production booths, libraries, wardrobe rooms and more — many of whom are, like the choir members, volunteers.

The number of people it takes to put together the weekly performance is impressive: 360 choir members, two conductors, three full-time and two part-time organists. And when the Orchestra at Temple Square is there, it adds another 110 people. Plus, there's the bell choir.

Then there's the support staff: the choir administration and secretaries, four full-time choral librarians, plus two music-handlers for each section, making 20 in all, plus four orchestra librarians, three full-time wardrobe workers for the women and two for the men, a stage crew of about 20 people for set-up and take-down, as well as other work.

And five couples are full-time service missionaries, dealing with such things as contracts, copyrights, budget, auditions and library work.

In all, says conductor Craig Jessop, about 500-550 people belong to the choir organization. And that doesn't count the people from Bonneville Communications, who do the technical work for the broadcast — the sound, the lighting, the cameras, or the groups from church hosting who help with the audience.

That's more people than there are in his Cache Valley hometown of Millville, jokes Jessop. "It's great that we all get along. This is a fantastic place and a fantastic team, and they all work together. Probably our greatest blessing is that (LDS) President (Gordon B.) Hinckley serves as our adviser. He's had that job since the death of Richard L. Evans, and he retains it to this day."

It is definitely a multilayered organization, says Jessop, and what makes it succeed is that "everyone here comes with a common purpose. They are united by two things — their faith, which provides discipline and is a unifier, and their love of music, which gives them extraordinary focus. They are a dedicated group."

· · · · ·

A typical Sunday morning in the Tabernacle on Temple Square begins with a check-in time of 7:25. By 7:30, choir members are in their seats, beginning warm-ups.

On this particular morning, Wilberg is taking them through Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," which will be the opening number on the choir broadcast. He gives them tips on timing, pronunciation, expression. "I know created ends with t-e-d, but we don't say it that way. It's tud, tud — not ted, but tud." Then he adds, "More bloom. We need more bloom and blossom on the 'impassioned."'

An interesting language, this musical one they speak.

Jessop moves about the hall, listening to the sound in various locations. The goal of the recent renovations was to not change the acoustics of the historic old building, he says, but it actually made them better. "They are richer, cleaner, clearer."

After the warm-ups, there are announcements: choir President Mac Christensen reports on his trip scouting for the 2009 tour. Executive director Scott Barrick comments on the new Spirit of the Y Award for Musical Excellence the choir received as part of Brigham Young University's homecoming the previous week.

There are updates on illnesses, announcements of winners of a recent golf tournament, a comment about names on the prayer roll, and then an opening prayer.

At 8:30, a full run-through of the program begins. It must be exactly 27 minutes and 56 seconds. "It's the conductor's job to bring it in," says Barrick, "and then the organ plays to the very last second."

On this morning, however, the program is a bit short, and they decide to add one verse of a hymn that ties in to the "Spoken Word." There is a quick run-through of that, for both timing and quality. "Remember," Jessop tells them, "don't be normal. Don't be mundane. You must be extraordinary, and you have one shot at it."

Choir members get a brief break around 9:15, while program host Mark Eubank comes in to greet the audience, explain a few things about the facilities and the choir, introduce special visitors and talk about the day's program. The broadcast will be heard on about 2,000 TV, cable and radio station, he explains. Only a few will run it live; for the rest it will be a tape-delay.

"But you are now part of the recording experience," he says. "If you have to cough, do it now."

At 9:30 a.m. on the dot, the magic begins. Everything comes together — just as it should.

· · · · ·

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been broadcasting from the Tabernacle since 1929. Over the years, it has been a kind of make-do proposition — making the best use of existing facilities and adding upgrades where possible. As new technology came along, recording and lighting devices were added in a mix-and-match fashion.

In 2005, when the Tabernacle was shut down for a remodel and seismic retrofitting, the decision was made to completely redo the choir's facilities and make them state-of-the-art, both in equipment and use of space.

"When President Hinckley saw those plans, it was cute," says Barrick. "He said, 'I get it. This is going to be the Mormon Choir Tabernacle.'

"But we are very fortunate to have a sponsoring organization that is willing to invest in us. This building has become immensely useful."

This was actually the third excavation under the Tabernacle, Barrick explains. The basement was added in 1967. Then in the 1980s, with the remodeling of the Assembly Hall, more work was done on the south side.

This latest renovation has added tunnels that connect to the Temple and Conference Center, as well as new working facilities.

New administrative offices have been put where the old baptistry used to be. For the first time, the administrators as well as the conductors and organists all have their offices in the Tabernacle, he says.

One of the great new additions, says Barrick, is the music library, which houses more than a million pieces of music. Checking that music in and out is a tremendous undertaking, says Tom Thomas, who, with his wife, Shirlene, manages the library. "For each broadcast we average about 2,000 pieces of music. With putting it out and checking it back in, that means we are handling 4,000 pieces each time."

Each choir member is assigned a locker by section number, S-65 for a soprano, for example, or T-15 for a tenor. Those lockers are loaded from the back, so the librarians place the day's music in the locker for the singer, and then can retrieve it after the performance. Each piece of music has a bar code, so it can be scanned and tracked, should something go missing.

The library also houses the orchestral music, all of Wilberg's arrangements and other musical references.

The same numbering convention carries over to the dressing rooms, where each singer is assigned a locker to hold outfits. For the women, that means eight different dresses; for the men, five different suits and a tuxedo.

The day's outfit is posted as choir members arrive in street clothes, and sometime's there's a dressed mannequin to show just how it should look.

The men's ties are all kept in drawers; the women's jewelry hung in rows. That day's jewelry will be put on a special tree, so the women can slip one off and put it on as they leave the dressing room.

All the women's dresses are made on-site, says wardrobe mistress Valorie Jensen. The sewing is done by Peggy Becker and Margot Marler. When a new design is chosen, they make a dress in every size from 4 to 30. Then individual choir members come in for fittings. Designs are elegant, but simple, and made for easy adjustments. For example, a shift that goes under a jacket is designed so the length can be adjusted by shoulder straps rather than rehemming.

"We do a new dress for each tour and order fabric 5,000 yards at a time," says Jensen. The dresses are also constructed to minimize upkeep. Embellishments are attached with magnets, so they can be removed for dry-cleaning. "It takes a month to dry-clean one outfit," she says. "We send them out 50 at a time."

· · · · ·

Equally impressive are other new facilities in the basement. There's a new "horseshoe" rehearsal hall, big enough that all choir members can sit.

"This is where the old translation booths used to be. But now they can do that work anywhere," says Barrick. It doubles as storage for orchestra cases. And it can be set up with baffles for smaller recordings. "They can do all kinds of sound effects here, now," he adds, "the kind of things we used to go to the BYU movie studio for."

There's a new projection booth, where postproduction work can be done. There's a TelePrompTer room that not only controls the TelePrompTer but allows people unfamiliar with it to come and practice. Under the Assembly Hall, in what used to be called "the south pit" because it was so dark and dreary, there are now airy classrooms and rehearsal halls.

There are lifts for moving heavy set pieces. "We can now do three configurations out in the hall," says Barrick. There's the setup for the orchestra, with a huge platform. There's the "conference mode" that accommodates rows of chairs for speakers. And there's an in-between setup. "The pieces all fit together, kind of like Legos. It really maximizes what we can do."

There's also housing for all the mechanical equipment. "We couldn't actually air-condition the hall. So each seat in the choir loft has a blower under it. The air blows up, and there are intake valves at the back of the hall."

Upstairs, there are new lounges, for musicians and guests on one side, for general authorities on the other. The original technician's office has been converted into a pie-organ maintenance area, with access to the network of pipes at all times.

One of Barrick's favorite things about this area is that the woodwork all replicates a section of original pioneer bannister. "That's a lovely touch they kept throughout the building. This is a historic building, and there's a lot of pioneer symbolism here."

In all, says Jessop, the choir couldn't ask for a better home. "The new library, the new wardrobe area, the new rehearsal facilities, the new audio booths — they all make a huge contribution to the mission of the choir. They've added to the historic nature of the building, preserving the things we love and adding sonic and physical beauty."

Simply put, he says, "it's heaven."


E-mail: carma@desnews.com

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