As I write this, I'm listening to the new CD "Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" — again.
I'm an easy target for a good male chorus. I've sung in them, led them and spent many hours listening to them. My father led them. And my first reaction to this surprising CD is that the sound director Mack Wilberg has cobbled together "isn't my father's men's chorus."
To begin with, the strengths and virtues are different here. Yes, a good deal of the robust sound with crisp attacks and cut-offs — all those sharp edges and creases — does show up. But Wilberg is after bigger game here. Just as the piano began as a percussion instrument until a master's hand showed how lyrical it could be, Wilberg has taken the traditional brassy sound of a men's chorus and given it the richness of a cello. Numbers like "Brightly Beams Our Father's Mercy" and "Beauiful Savior" go all the way to "tender." And the pair of lullabies might put babies to sleep, but never the listener.
Still, I can't listen to this new CD without remembering Wilberg's salad days as the director of the Men's Chorus at BYU. Back then, each performance served as a showcase for a new Wilberg arrangement. And the powerful sound he cultivated turned many of us into fanatics, often driving 100 miles just to catch a BYU Men's Chorus program. Wilberg always brought every one of the boys all along ("How can you tell someone they have to stay home?" he told me) and the result was always a roof-raiser sound.
Now, Wilberg is wringing much of the same magic — though more mature and understated — from the men of the Tabernacle Choir. Working tongue and groove with the church, of course, the conductor must deal with some restrictions. But like Bach — who had to follow the confines of the Common Practice Period — he and his chorus find astounding freshness and originality even in harness.
Several favorites pop out on the CD. A Billy Joel tune ("Goodnight, My Angel") is worth many listens. And Richard Wagner's "Pilgrim's Chorus" never grows old.
But I think the song we'll all be hearing more and more from this CD is "You Raise Me Up," a pop song transformed here into a spiritual anthem. With its lilt of an Irish aire and the overtones of "Danny Boy," "You Raise Me Up" slowly builds to a blockbuster finish — always a specialty of Wilberg choirs. Hearing the song, I could almost picture President Gordon B. Hinckley putting his right hand to his mouth (as he did when emotion surfaced) and saying something along the lines of, "Brethren, your singing makes my own heart sing."
Wilberg says this is a one-shot project. If so, so be it. But I, for one, couldn't help wonder what these mature male voices would sound like if set behind a vibrant boys' choir singing the higher parts, like the classic clerks and choristers of first-rate British groups. We'll probably never see that, but it's OK to dream. Especially since this new CD is filled with more than a dozen songs to dream to.
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