Jesus Christ: Savior. Redeemer. Comforter. Healer. Friend. He has been at the center of a musical tradition that stretches back to the beginning of Christianity.
Music has always been an important way of not only praising and honoring Christ, but also of drawing strength and comfort from his teachings, says Mormon Tabernacle Choir Director Mack Wilberg. "From the beginning, music has been the chosen way to express feelings that words alone can't," he says. "Music has unique ways of speaking to the soul."
The choir's latest CD release falls squarely within that tradition. "This Is The Christ" offers a collection of Christ-centered songs designed to be contemplative and thoughtful. "We wanted it to offer comfort and consolation — something we need in this day and age," says Wilberg. "The final number, "I Believe in Christ," is big; we needed an exclamation point at the end," he says. "But the rest are more peaceful, more meditative."
Songs include traditional hymns such as "The Lord My Pasture Will Prepare," "Come Unto Him" and "Our Savior's Love;" folk hymns such as "Sunshine in My Soul," "Softly and Tenderly" and "Beautiful Savior;" religious music by both LDS and other composers, such as the title song written James E. Faust and the operatic-style "O Divine Redeemer," by Charles Gounod.
Many are new recordings by the choir; some have been previously recorded. "When it came time to select the music, we felt it needed to have a certain flow," says Wilberg. "When we already had the perfect song for that flow, there was no need to record it again." But putting those songs in a new context can give them a different feeling, a different meaning, he says.
Singing songs of Christ is nothing new for the choir. "Every album we've done has something on it," says Wilberg. "We wanted to bring a lot of them together, to create an album with that specific emphasis, to have one place where people could find a lot of their favorite songs."
The CD is just one new offering that highlights the work of the choir. Also being released by Deseret Book is a DVD, "One Voice," produced by BYU-TV and offering a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes for the choir to go on tour.
The timing is particularly apt, says Wilberg, as the choir prepares to go on this summer's tour, which will take place June 20-28, with visits to Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Toronto, Canada; a total of seven concerts in five cities.
"Touring takes a lot of work, a lot of preparation," says Wilberg. With choir and orchestra members, staff and many spouses, there are about 600 people, which require 10 or 11 buses and five or so semitrucks full of equipment.
"We are so blessed to have such a great staff to put it all together," Wilberg says. " 'One Voice,' gives a good sense of what goes into it."
The program, which has aired on BYU-TV and is now available on DVD, focuses on the choir's 2009 tour to the Midwest.
"We wanted to take a look at two things," says Jim Bell, who directed the project for BYU-TV. "We wanted to show the enormity and complexity of taking such a huge organization on the road, and we wanted to look at why they do it."
BYU took a crew of 10 people, including three cameramen, says Bell. "We asked for complete access to everything, and that's what we got. We got great access. We captured great moments. We found great stories."
The choir visited seven cities. "We focused on a different aspect in each city," says Bell. He was really impressed by the "intensity of each day, what the choir members did on a day-to-day basis. They were up at dawn and went nonstop, often not only taking bus rides, but also making stops at nursing homes or other places. Yet, each night, they were totally fresh for each concert."
His crew ended up working 18-hour days. "I was never so tired in my life," he says.
It was also fun to see, he says, "how easily they made friends all along the way: the hotel management, the maids that made up their beds, the restaurant servers. "The way they were always reaching out to people was very impressive."
Even more than physical stamina, however, he was impressed by the choir members themselves and their sense of mission.
"They love the music; they absolutely love it. And they love sharing their gift of music with others."
They are not just average musicians, says Bell. "They are the cream of the crop; they are remarkably talented people. And they sacrifice long days, give up vacations, do whatever it takes to be able to share the music."
They know that not everyone can come to Salt Lake City, and so every other year, they take their gift out to the world, he says.
"Their love of the gospel, their love of the Savior is part of the motivation," Bell says. "But they also have a great appreciation for the power music has in people's lives."
And despite long days, despite often having to wait in line at rest stops and restaurants and to get into elevators, "I never once heard a complaint, never once heard a murmuring word. I was amazed at how well everyone got along: 600 people, moving 2,200 miles in 14 days and close quarters. But they showed nothing but love and support and kindness for each other."
The choir sings the songs of love, and of the Savior and of wonderful principles, Bell says. "They truly practice what they preach in song."
He will not be going along on this year's tour, but he hopes there will be a future opportunity. "I'd go again in a heartbeat," he says. "There are more stories to be told."
The tour adds to a "very busy summer" for the choir, says Wilberg. They will get back in time to jump right into the Pioneer Day Concert, then they will be doing a Tanner Gift of Music concert with the Utah Symphony and then it's time for another general conference and another Christmas concert.
What they do, they do without monetary compensation and without complaint, but with lots of love.
Whether it is doing a special concert, going on tour, recording a CD or presenting the weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast, nothing is taken for granted.
It is a deeply felt honor and privilege, Wilberg says, "to share our music with the world."