From its beginning, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has celebrated the efforts of pioneers, of those who carved out homes in the wilderness, made the desert blossom as a rose, built cities and established institutions.
This year's Pioneer Day Commemoration Concert on Friday will focus on the choir's own pioneering efforts, particularly in the field of recorded music.
One hundred years ago, under the auspices of the Columbia Phonograph Co., the choir was the first large musical organization in this country to make a recording. Nothing has slowed it down in the century since, as it has recorded in every medium, every new technology as it came along. In all, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has 175 recordings and releases to its credit.
It has often collaborated with some of the world's leading musicians, including the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, the Royal Philharmonic, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble, Canadian Brass and the Utah Symphony. In 1958 it began a partnership with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which lasted more than a decade and resulted in some legendary releases. In 1999 it added its own orchestra to its family; in 2003, it created its own record label.
Famed soloists appearing on the choir's recordings include operatic superstars Eileen Farrell, Robert Merrill, Marilyn Horne, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel; Broadway stars Angela Lansbury and Brian Stokes Mitchell; international greats The King's Singers and Sissel; narrators such as Walter Cronkite and Edward Hermann, and others.
The choir has also been a witness to a century of memorable events and moments, performing at presidential inaugurations, the American Bicentennial in 1976, the funerals of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Its weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" is the world's longest-running continuous network broadcast, with more than 4,000 shows, which air on more than 2,000 TV, radio and cable stations across the country.
To mark those achievements, in June the choir released a three-disc CD, "100: Celebrating a Century of Recording Excellence," featuring four new recordings, 28 "most-requested" favorites, six vintage audio offerings and six historic video segments.
This year's Pioneer Day Concert will draw material from that set and focus on those accomplishments. The concert takes place at the LDS Conference Center. All tickets have been distributed, but standby seating is generally available.
"It's a special, special time," says choir president Mac Christensen. "The choir has been on the cutting edge for 100 years. It just builds and builds and builds."
The concert will "celebrate 100 years of history," says choir general manager Scott Barrack. "It will be flush with stories from the past. It will demonstrate how the choir has grown from its pioneer roots and how it projects the pioneer spirit."
Choir member Scott Woodbury has experienced that pioneering spirit from the inside. His mother was also a choir member, singing under Richard P. Condie; and after doing a bit of research, Woodbury has found 35 other choir members he's related to in one way or another.
"It's just really big part of our family history, has been a big blessing for our family," Woodbury says.
Even during his own tenure, "I've felt like a pioneer. We've been to places the choir had never been before, like Israel and Rome." Singing in both those places, where other faiths and beliefs are so strong, was a remarkable experience, he said, and something that shows the universal strength and scope of the choir's music and how it can bring everyone together.
Putting together the celebratory package was a feat in itself, says Bob Ahlander, managing director for the music division at Deseret Book, which handles the marketing and distribution of all choir products.
"Just picking the songs out of the hundreds the choir has recorded was not easy, but I think these selections really make it a definitive collection."
The selections include spiritual, classical, folk, traditional, Broadway theater and other genres. Once choices were made, they had to get licensing agreements. "A lot of the older stuff is still owned by Sony. For the video, we also needed lots of licenses and clearances."
By far, the hardest to track down, says Barrick, was the video of the trans-Atlantic broadcast from Mount Rushmore.
"No one knew who held the copyright. Finally, we tracked down a newspaper article from Naples, Fla., of all places, that talked about a man who had the entire Telstar broadcast, which had an NBC copyright." So with that, they got permission from NBC, which had no current records of ownership, he said.
The choir has a remarkable and unique history, adds current choir director Mack Wilberg. Not only can it make the claim to be the first large ensemble to be recorded, it has recorded longer than any other American group. And to have so many of those early recordings still is remarkable, he says, "especially with the means we now have of restoring them."
You really get a sense of where the choir has been and where it has come, he says. But some things have not changed.
"From the first, the tradition was to be the best they could possibly be. The current choir is very much a part of that tradition. The choir is a vibrant, living organization that has always moved with the times."
Which means, he says, that it is wonderful to celebrate the choir's legacy, but it is also possible to look to a bright and pioneering future.
If you go . . .
What: Pioneer Day Commemoration Concert
When: July 16, 7:30 p.m.
Where: LDS Conference Center
Admission: Free tickets have been distributed; standby lines form at the North Gate of Temple Square at 6 p.m.
Also: Concert will be rebroadcast on July 17 at various times on the church's satellite broadcast network and on BYU Television