American icons relish chance to collaborate on concert

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

“This has taken the choir a little out of the box but in a wonderful way,” says Wilberg. “The choir has really enjoyed it. In fact, I made them memorize (Taylor’s songs).”

Ron Jarrett, president of the choir, says he told choir members that it would “probably be OK” if they got into the spirit of Taylor’s music and nodded their heads and moved to the beat of the music. “What a mistake that was,” he joked. “They were practically dancing. Now I’m trying to calm them down.”

If the choir was moved by the collaboration, so was Taylor and his band. During Thursday night’s rehearsals of “That Lonesome Road,” the band was moved to tears, and afterward Taylor turned to Wilberg and said, “That song has died and gone to heaven.” At one point, Taylor turned and looked at the choir, mouth agape, and gave them a fist pump, and when practice was finished he gave them a bow.

The concert marked another milestone in the history of both the choir and Taylor. Both have evolved and done so gracefully. In the last decade or so, the choir has reached out to team with performers from outside the LDS Church — artists from opera, stage, pop, TV, movies, home and abroad, from Sissel to Audra McDonald to Sting (during the Olympics) and Rene Fleming — to take its reach worldwide and appeal to a broader demographic.

The Tanner Gift Foundation, the 30-year-old brainchild of O.C. Tanner and former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, provides another forum for such aspirations. It was designed to put the choir, the Utah Symphony and a guest artist on stage together and make it accessible, which means bringing in the occasional pop artist and providing tickets free to the public. Not surprisingly, free tickets to a James Taylor concert were swept up fast in an online lottery.

When someone has expressed surprise over the teaming of the choir with certain guests, Wilberg has a ready answer: “Our mandate is to sing for everyone. We don’t just sing for one group or sing one genre. … This is everybody’s choir.”

To many, Taylor seemed an odd fit for the button-down choir, but only for those who haven’t kept up with the troubadour. This is not your father’s James Taylor. From a troubled, shy, reticent youth whose struggles with drugs were well chronicled, he has evolved into a warm, thoughtful and beloved figure in America and abroad. He is everywhere, singing at presidential inaugurations, the NHL Winter Classic, political conventions, the World Series, the Academy Awards, the U.S. (tennis) Open, political fundraisers, the 9-11 Memorial, the Boston Marathon bombing memorial.

One day he is on stage with Taylor Swift (who was named after Taylor), and then the Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, Carole King, Yo Yo Ma, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, Zac Brown, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boys Choir of Harlem. He has become America’s singer-songwriter laureate.

Taylor’s music has stood the test of time, which accounts for his staying power and his appeal to a wide demographic — teens and retirees and everyone in between. How long has Taylor been around? He was actually discovered — with a “suitcase of songs and a guitar” — by the Beatles, who made him the first to sign with their new Apple record label.

“It’s been an incredible run,” said Taylor. “I never could have anticipated it. I never thought of myself surviving beyond a week. I never had any idea about a future, and to be 65 and do this, I marvel at it. I don’t understand it. It’s the nature of things that we are trapped in ourselves, and we try to get out of it and reconnect with what is all around us from this narrow place from which we experience our lives. … It’s amazing to live in here (he says this pointing to himself).”

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