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Behind the scenes with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Published: Monday, Nov. 1 2010 6:00 a.m. MDT

Choir members get dressed and prepare for the Oct. 17 broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word" at the Tabernacle. The choir will be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame next month.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — At 9:30 sharp on Sunday morning, the cue is given and soft music caresses the Tabernacle: \"Gently raise the sacred strain, for the Sabbath's come again, that man may rest, that man may rest.\"

For the next half-hour, the Tabernacle will be filled with the glorious sounds of \"Music and the Spoken Word.\" And not only this building, but through the magic of radio, television and cable, the sounds will go out to fill the homes and buildings and centers served by about 2,000 stations around the country.

It has been that way, week in and week out, for 82 years now, the longest-running, continuous broadcast in the country.

Today's broadcasts, of course, are much different from those in 1929, initiated by LDS Church President Heber J. Grant. On July 15, as the famous story goes, KZN radio, forerunner of KSL and a stepchild of the Deseret News, temporarily went off the air so that its only microphone could be transported to the Tabernacle, where a technician perched atop a 15-foot ladder could hold it for the 30-minute musical program.

Nationwide radio had only been operating for a few years, but KZN immediately began lobbying for a coast-to-coast broadcast. Thirty radio stations received the first NBC transmission. By the next year, quality of broadcasting had improved to the point that the New York Telegram noted: \"Somewhere in the world there may be more than one brilliant choral organization other than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but there is no broadcasting in America today to equal the one that comes from the air over the National Broadcasting System.\"

The program grew and changed as technology grew and changed, staying at the forefront all along the way. Eventually, the CBS radio and television network became the national partner.

Some things have not changed: the heartfelt messages, the musical expressions of faith — and the fact that it is still a live broadcast, or, at least, has come full-circle back to a live broadcast.

\"Live is almost a lost art,\" producer Edward J. Payne says. \"No one does a very complex show of music and art live anymore. They want several takes. They want to fine-tune the audio.\" He's had colleagues who can't believe he even tries a live program. \"And then they see our broadcast, and really can't believe that it is live.\"

There are stations that carry the program on tape delay, and occasionally, a number will be rerecorded after the broadcast to be inserted into what goes out, Payne says; sometimes a technical, sometimes a musical problem. \"But we do go live to a lot of stations. It's a great tradition we want to continue. When (LDS Church) President (Gordon B.) Hinckley was here, it was very important to him that it be a live program.\"

They make it look easy, but it takes a dedicated staff of producers, directors, sound and light technicians, camera operators and more to put together the weekly broadcast. \"They say the choir is as good as each individual singer,\" Payne says. \"Our broadcast is as good as each individual technician. We have incredible camera people, incredible directors. Our crew stacks up with any crew I've ever known, with the quality of work they do.\"

Technicians \"aspire to stay out of the way of the artists,\" he says. \"They do incredible audio. The video matches the music. The visual and audio presentation makes it as close to being in the Tabernacle as is possible.\"

* * *

Any given \"Music and The Spoken Word\" program begins about six weeks ahead of time, when Choir Director Mack Wilberg and \"Spoken Word\" head writer and deliverer Lloyd Newell get together.

They talk about what they would like to sing, what messages might be appropriate. Programs are firmed up a month ahead, and the scheduling begins.

Administrative manager Barry Anderson looks at orchestral needs and finds out who will be available, and if additional instruments, such as a contrabassoon, are required. Music librarians begin compiling sets of music for rehearsals. The choir members will see the music two weeks ahead; the orchestra will see it for the first time at the Thursday night rehearsal before the Sunday broadcast.

Putting together a program is not just a matter of picking out pieces that will fit together timewise, although that is a consideration. Each program must come in at 27 minutes, 56 seconds.

\"They have to be pieces that the timing works on, and that the choir will be well-prepared to sing,\" Wilberg says. But there is more to it than that. There's an art to programming that many say Wilberg has honed to perfection.

He looks for texture. He looks for key relationships. He tries to balance different interests. \"We always try to do something for everyone. Some want only hymns; some want music of the masters; some like popular favorites.\"

He also knows that for many people, \"this is their church, this may be the only time they have to be inspired, to be lifted up. We want them to go away with a renewed sense of hope, at least for this moment of their day, of their week. This program is given to the world, goes out to the world.\"

Programs generally feature five to six pieces. Computer programs keep track of everything that has been done for the past 30-40 years, Anderson says. \"Mack can find out when a piece was last performed, how often it has been performed.\" Any given program may feature songs that have been performed or recorded, but there are also always new ones. \"Achieved Is the Glorious Work\" from Haydn's \"Creation,\" for example, was performed for the first time two weeks ago.

Their overall goal is very simple, Choir President Mac Christensen says. \"We just want each broadcast to be a little better than the last one.\"

* * *

Choir members begin arriving at 6:30 on Sunday morning. \"For me that is sleeping in,\" choir member Alma Farnsworth jokes. \"I usually have to be at work at 5 (a.m.).\" But, he adds, the time doesn't really matter. \"We know we will come and have a great time. We all love what we are doing.\"

The first stop is the dressing rooms, where all choir members will change into the outfit of the day.

For the women, that means one of about eight different dresses. Each singer is assigned a number, by section. That's the number used for their closet, for their dresses. \"Here, they lose their name and get a number,\" jokes Peggy Becker, a master seamstresses.

All the dresses are made in-house, with a new one added for tours every other year. Fabric is usually ordered from China in 2,000-yard increments. \"We have 200 ladies, so we have 200 shapes to fit. And over the years, some of those shapes change, so we are constantly taking in or letting out. We also keep an inventory of extra dresses on hand,\" she says.

After dresses have been worn a few times, they go out to the dry cleaners, in 50-dress lots.

Each dress also has a necklace or ornamentation that is held on by magnets sewn into the dress. Decorations are all hung on a tree near the door for the women to slip on as they go up to rehearsal.

The men, too, have a changing room. \"With the men, we put out a model, so they know exactly what they are supposed to look like,\" Anderson says. \"And all the ties have names: red 'Kevlar' tie, amoeba tie, red snow tie, hypno tie, gray snow tie. It helps them keep track of which is which.\"

For the orchestra, standard dress is \"concert black. Some dress and come, some come and dress,\" Anderson says.

For choir members, the next stop is the music library, where they pick up and turn in music in a locker that also has their number on it. There are 16 different sections: first soprano, second alto, and so forth. \"So, every Sunday, we are dealing with about 2,000 pieces of music,\" says Debbie Martin, a former choir member who now serves as a librarian. \"But each section has a volunteer to help collate the music.\"

Each piece of music has a bar code and is logged in and out; if someone takes a piece home and forgets to bring it back, the music is not re-shelved until it all comes back. Keeping track of it all is a huge undertaking. \"And we get new pieces all the time. We got five new arrangements from Mack for the last general conference,\" Martin says.

Periodically, they will gather up some of the old pieces and send them to Wilberg to see if they should be kept; mostly, he likes to keep them, she says.

* * *

Early rehearsal starts with warm-up and prayer at 7:25 a.m. They will have an hour to rehearse. \"Energize the words,\" Wilberg may tell them; \"it sounds like you're running out of energy.\" Or, \"do it from the al-le-lu-yuh.\" \"Great job; it's going to be terrific this morning.\" \"This one's hard to keep in tune; when in doubt, place your intervals higher.\"

At around 7:45, members of the 110-person, all-volunteer orchestra begin to arrive. \"It's an amazing experience,\" woodwind expert Daron Bradford says, \"to sit in front of this great choir, to be involved with something this superb.\" It is different, he says, from any paid orchestra he has been part of. \"The purpose here is much higher.\"

Sometime around 8, director Lynn Clayson will call the camera operators together to hand out assignments and go over the day's show.

His work for the Sunday broadcast starts at the Thursday night rehearsal. \"We do an audio recording of the program; I get copies of the printed music; we talk about camera angles.\" Then he takes everything away to block out the shots. \"When the altos are singing, we want to see altos,\" he says.

Each show will use about six or seven cameras: a couple in the balcony, a couple of hand-helds, a large jib-mounted camera, some robotics, mounted at the back of the hall and actually controlled from the central control station now housed in the Conference Center.

Each program can have anywhere from 100 to 140 or so different camera shots, which Clayson notes by song, by camera, by length, by sequence. There are also built-in section of \"overroll,\" scenic shots that correspond to music or thought. \"If the choir is singing about God's beautiful world, we want you to see that world,\" Clayson says.

There are 13 or 14 camera operators in all, who rotate assignments week to week. \"I love it,\" says Brandy Vega, who has been working with the choir for six years. \"It's such a great experience to come listen to the choir, to be part of this production,\" she says. \"And no matter how often I hear it, I cry every single time at the end when they sing 'God Be With You.' \"

At their morning meeting, the camera people share goodies, often provided by members of the choir. \"They love us,\" Brian Bunton jokes. \"If they bring treats, maybe they'll get more camera time.\"

It's always a fairly ambitious show, but generally things run smoothly. Jib cameraman Glen Fisk does remember the time when, at a concert in Idaho, \"I got one of the violinist's bows stuck in a cable.\"

Kory Hasagawa has been with the program for 23 years; for Kevin Bills, it's all very new. \"I've wanted to do this for 23 years. This is a dream,\" he says. Before starting out, \"I had to watch the obligatory 200 hours of shows. My family gets tired of me directing behind the scenes,\" he says with a laugh.

* * *

At 8:25 a.m., the cameras roll for the final run-though. \"Thursday night we were 55 seconds under, so we need to slow it down,\" Payne says. \"We can't have more than 10-12 seconds of organ interlude at the end.\" Wilberg will watch the clock closely, he says, and will lengthen out some passages as needed.

Then the signal comes, and Clayson's voice engineers the show: \"Ready 3, shot 12, and take,\" he says. \"Ready camera 2, shot 15, and take.\" \"A little tighter on the tops of pipes.\" \"Clarinets are up. Those are flutes. OK, those are clarinets, and take.\" \"Full-wide on the women, and dissolve.\"

It will need very little tweaking when the program goes live in another half-hour.

At 9:20 a.m., the 360 choir members are given a break, and they head quickly for drinking fountains and restrooms. They will be back in their seats in exactly nine minutes.

In the meantime, a guest host welcomes the audience that has now gathered in the Tabernacle. KSL newsman Duane Cardall has been one of those hosts for the past eight years. \"Mac Christensen realized we had a little gap in time, and thought we could use the opportunity to tell people about the choir, the organization, the facility.\" He is one of four hosts, who rotate from week to week. \"It's the grandest thing, being associated with the choir family,\" he says. \"It's just a wonderful organization.\"

Lloyd Newell, now in his 20th year as announcer, takes over as the program starts. He, too, echoes the sense of privilege he feels each week. \"It's an amazing blessing to be part of this. It's something I never take for granted, or see as a routine thing.\"

As the program begins, as he welcomes both audience and viewers to the \"Crossroads of the West, to Temple Square in Salt Lake City,\" he speaks some words that have been used for decades and also presents messages that are as timely as tomorrow. \"I know we are touching lives. We get so many letters about how a song or a message made a difference to someone, gave someone else a reason to keep going. It adds to the resolve to do your very best.\"

* * *

When stage manager Alex Morris arrives at around 6:30 a.m., he often likes to take a walk around the quiet, peaceful Temple Square, \"just to get things set in my head.\" He knows that the next three or four hours will be packed with activity and pressure.

It is his job to make sure everyone is where he or she is supposed to be, when he or she is supposed to be there: orchestra, soloists, technicians. \"My biggest responsibility is to make sure the conductor worries as little as possible.\"

It is a constant, he says. After Sunday, they take Monday to reflect, and then \"on Tuesday, it all starts again.\"

But at the end of the Sunday broadcast, he says, \"it is worth it. That's not just a pep talk. It really is worth it, worth everything that goes into it.\"

\"It was phenomenal,\" says new cameraman Kevin Bills, who has operated one of the robotics. \"Dreams can come true.\"

It is actually over very quickly. Choir and orchestra members quickly head off to other Sunday activities. A few technicians work to get the show ready for stations who do not carry it live. But the Tabernacle quickly slips back to a place of serenity and peace.

But — choir, orchestra, conductor, producer, director, cameramen, volunteers and more — this is what they all know: \"In another seven days, 'Music and the Spoken Word' will be heard again from the Crossroads of the West.\" That is not just a closing statement that dates back to the time of Richard L. Evans. It is a promise.

\"Our time is now,\" Wilberg says. \"We are privileged to be part of this long chain. We only have a short time to be involved, and that is a blessing for us.\" But one of the secrets of why it has lasted so long, he says, is that it is \"not tied to one time or one individual. This organization is so incredible, and it will continue long after those of us who are here now are gone.\"

It has been that way for 82 years; it will be that way for many, many more.

e-mail: carma@desnews.com

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