When an organization has been in existence for more than 150 years, when it has been recording for more than 100 years with more than 175 albums to its credit, when it has been on the radio since 1929 and on the cutting edge of every new technology that has come along, it's difficult to come up with something new.
But the Mormon Tabernacle Choir still manages to do it.
For the first time in its long and storied history, the choir is releasing an album featuring only the right-hand side of the choir loft: "Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" (Mormon Tabernacle Choir, $17.98).
Beginning with the aptly titled folk hymn, "Brethren, We Have Met to Worship," the 15-track album includes hymns, spirituals, music of the masters and inspirational pop songs — all sung exclusively by the men.
"It's very much like the repertoire of the complete choir," says choir director Mack Wilberg. "There's something for everyone."
Included is music by Grieg ("Land-Sighting"), Wagner ("Pilgrim's Chorus" from "Tannhauser"), Gilbert and Sullivan (the finale from "The Gondoliers"), as well as contemporary songs such as "You Raise Me Up," made famous by John Groban; and "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)" by Billy Joel.
There are popular hymns such as "Brightly Beams our Father's Mercy" and "Beautiful Savior."
There are robust and hearty songs such as "The Morning Trumpet" and "Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might," and soft and tender songs, such as "There Is a Balm in Gilead" and "Hush Little Baby."
"There's something kind of wonderful about men singing lullabyes," says Wilberg, which is why he included two on the album. "Men can be tender, too. The Billy Joel song is one he wrote for his own daughter."
The collection is put together so that it has an appealing flavor and flow. And choosing the songs was not easy, says Wilberg.
"This is not only the first album featuring the men, it may be the only one we ever do."
So, he adds, it's not just a matter of picking songs that men can sing; it's a matter of picking the best possible songs that not only showcase the repertoire and range of the men, but also give the listener a satisfying and enjoyable experience that they will want to repeat again and again.
Only three of the selections were written specifically for men; the rest have been adapted to men's voices. The majority of the arrangements were done by Wilberg. But there are also arrangements by assistant choir director Ryan Murphy and others.
Guest soloist Clayton Brainerd, a bass baritone who lives in Washington and is "a good friend of the choir," appears on Grieg's "Land-Sighting." He arrived on the scene with his Viking hat and staff and a cape, says Wilberg. "That was a lot of fun. It's great to record with your friends."
When the idea of a men-only CD was first proposed, Wilberg admits he was somewhat resistant.
"I didn't want to offend the women of the choir. But when we announced the project, the women could not have been more supportive or enthusiastic. So we went full-steam ahead."
There is a long-standing tradition of all-male choruses, which could be said to stretch back to the Gregorian chants, if not before. But it came into full blossom in 19th-century Germany, says Wilberg, with the rise of the "Mannerchor."
These choirs tended to promote nationalism, as well as political and social enlightenment. (As of 2002, according to a German website, there were still more than 9,600 men's choirs in Germany.)
There was also a "wonderful tradition" of men's choirs in Wales, says Wilberg; but then, Wales is known for all of its musical heritage.
There is something about the sonority and timbre of the male voice, and the way tenors and basses harmonize that make it very enjoyable to listen to, says Wilberg.
He knows that well from his early career. Wilberg came to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from Brigham Young University, where he was a professor of choral music and was well-known for his work with the BYU Men's Chorus, as well as his arrangements for men's voices. Wilberg has continued that tradition with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
"Songs by the men of the choir have always been favorites on our concert programs and broadcasts," he says. This is just the first time an entire album has been devoted to them. "It adds a new dimension to the recorded history of the choir."
"Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" is the 35th recording project to come out of the choir's independently owned recording label. Over the years, the choir's albums have earned five gold records, two platinum records and a Grammy.
The choir is just coming off its hugely popular Christmas concert, which this year featured teen sensation David Archuleta and longtime actor and narrator Michael York. But they are already forging ahead, says Wilberg; 2011 will be another busy year, with a tour planned for June, another album in the works and a variety of special concerts, not to mention the weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcasts.
"We just take a deep breath and go on," says Wilberg, as they continue to produce and present the uplifting and powerful music that has become a soundtrack for many lives.