American icons relish chance to collaborate on concert

Published: Friday, Sept. 6 2013 11:05 p.m. MDT

James Taylor performs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony at the 30th Anniversary O.C. Tanner Gift of Music Concert at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In a match that was years in the making, on a stage in the Salt Lake LDS Conference Center, two American icons formed an unlikely union, and the result was a remarkable night of music, with an encore still to come.

Who knew James Taylor and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would ever even appear in the same sentence, yet alone on the same stage, but there they were Friday night. Tonight they will do it all over again.

Taylor alternately teamed with the choir and the Utah Symphony to sing several of his classic songs — “Lonesome Road,” “Shower the People,” “My Traveling Star,” “And Shed a Little Light,” among others. He also delivered solo renditions of “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina in My Mind” and “Secret of Life,” as well as covers of two traditional songs, “Water is Wide” and “Getting to Know You.” He drew a standing ovation with his performance of "Shower the People."

The choir, striking an Americana theme, performed “Saints Bound for Heaven,” “Down to the River to Pray,” “When the Saints Go Marchin' In,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “It’s a Great Night for Singing.”

As he usually does, Taylor encored with a solo performance of “Sweet Baby James," the cowboy lullaby he wrote after the birth of his namesake nephew.

"I can’t tell you what it's like to have my songs performed by this choir," he told the audience. "You can guess."

For Taylor, the pairing with the choir was a long time coming. His friend John Williams, the legendary movie composer who worked with the choir during the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, urged him to perform with the choir. Says Taylor, “He told me, ‘Don’t hesitate; you must go and make this happen.’ He was so thrilled to work here.”

Choir officials have sought a partnership with Taylor “multiple times,” beginning as early as 2006. “It just took us a long time to find the date, and this was worth the wait,” said Taylor. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a national treasure and a great gift to the world.”

The pitch the choir uses to lure Taylor and other top (and expensive) artists to their stage is the same: The choir can’t pay the artists their normal fee, but singing with the choir is a bucket list item. As opera diva Frederica von Stade once told choir officials, “There are a few brass rings in life for a performer, and one of them is to perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”

The performance of Taylor, the symphony and the choir was a remarkable undertaking, especially considering the speed with which they had to coordinate and rehearse a small army of about 500 musicians. Arriving in town Wednesday afternoon, Taylor went right to work, practicing with his own band from 7 to 11 p.m. that evening in the Conference Center and then again the next morning with the symphony from 9 to 11:30, followed by another 7 to 9 session that night with the choir.

Before Taylor arrived, the choir managed five rehearsals of Taylor’s songs following their regular Sunday morning “Music and the Spoken Word” radio/TV broadcast. It was not a tough sell. Said one choir member, “We were singing ‘Shower the People,’ and I’m looking around to see if anyone else realizes how great this is. I’m living a dream. We were singing ‘Shed a Little Light’ — 360 voices doing these little licks perfectly together — and it gave me goose bumps. I hope I live through this. I swear I’m going to have a heart attack.”

Even director Mack Wilberg, the reserved, humble, 58-year-old classically trained musical whiz, was seen bobbing and weaving with the music while they practiced “Shed a Little Light.”

“He was almost dancing!” said one choir member.

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