Directing The Tabernacle Choir with Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy
What would you ask the directors of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square if you could sit with them in the basement of the historic Salt Lake Tabernacle? We put a call out on Twitter for questions and Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy set out to answer them (and a few of our own) on this week’s episode of “All In.”
Find the Tabernacle Choir's new album, "Let Us All Press On," here.
MORGAN JONES: For over 108 years, the Salt Lake tabernacle has been home of a choir that became known around the world as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In October 2018, the choir changed its name to the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, but the legacy of the choir remains. We recently sat down with the choir's directors, Mack Wilberg, and Ryan Murphy, in the basement of that historic tabernacle to discuss the power of music, their experience with the choir, and the choir's new album, Let Us All Press On.
Mack Wilberg grew up in the small mining community of Castle Dale, Utah, where his love for music began by playing the piano by ear at the age of four. He received his bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University and his master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Southern California. He has been the musical director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square for over a decade. Ryan Murphy has been the associate music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square for nearly 10 years. He also holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Brigham Young University as well as a doctorate in choral conducting from Boston University. Prior to his time with the choir, he worked as the musical director at the Sundance Institute and the music director for the Tuachan Center for the Arts.
This is All In an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones and I'm so excited to be here with Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy, directors at the Tabernacle Choir at Temple square. Thank you both so much.
MACK WILBERG: Thank you. Great to be with you.
RYAN MURPHY: Thanks for having us.
MJ: So I have to tell you, we put out a question on Twitter and we asked people, "What would you like to ask the directors of the Tabernacle Choir?" And we got a wide range of questions. I've mixed some of those in with my own questions. But some of the questions ranged from, "will the choir ever do a version of Bohemian Rhapsody?" To some other more appropriate questions, we'll skip the Bohemian Rhapsody question for today.
MW: That's probably a good idea.
MJ: But I actually have kind of a selfish question, Mack, first of all. I've been curious, the last two years I've gone to the Christmas concert, it's been fantastic, you both do such an amazing job. But I'm curious about whether you actually enjoy the sing-along? Or do we sound terrible?
MW: No, actually, we did the sing-along for the first time last year. And we had always been a little bit hesitant to have a sing-along because the conference center is so huge and it's really hard to be together with that many people singing together. So last year, if people will remember, we did Jingle Bells, which of course, everyone knows Jingle Bells. And so we thought well, if Jingle Bells doesn't work, then probably nothing will ever work. So we went into that concert hoping for the best. And actually, it went quite well.
MJ: It sounded fairly good from where I was sitting.
MW: It absolutely did. And so when we were putting together, formulating what we'd like to do for just this past concert, thinking about a sing-along again and thought about the 12 Days of Christmas. Because, again, everybody knows at least a portion of that Christmas carol. And so, of course, we did 12 Days of Christmas and once again, it went quite well. Now I don't know if we're going to have a sing-along every year, but we at least know that we can do it and it goes quite well. We know from experience in conducting the congregational hymns at General Conference, that you know, we kind of anticipated the challenges of a sing-along, but I think that we were, generally, quite pleased with what happened.
MJ: I think it's fun for the audience to feel like they're singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir because that's such a dream for some people.
MW: And I always say that if it's going to be a sing-along, it just can't be turned around and everybody sings, there has to be something about it so that it becomes part of the experience and just not singing a Christmas Carol, as great as that can be. For this concert, we want it to be something where people feel like that they are indeed contributing to the concert experience itself.
MJ: I have to tell you, there was a guy sitting right behind me and you would have thought he was auditioning. He was belting it out. I think people caught the spirit of it.
Okay, I have already messed up the name. I already made the mistake of saying, "Mormon Tabernacle Choir."
RM: I didn't even notice.
MJ: So I'm curious, how do you both feel about the name change? And what was your initial reaction when you found out that the Prophet had made this call for a return to using the church by its full name?
MW: Well, of course, the name, it's an iconic name and we approached it in the spirit of which the request was made. And I have to say that we've been really pleasantly pleased with the way that the reception that the name change has had. And in fact, I think it's really had very little impact on what we do and it seemed to be quite a smooth transition.
MJ: That's awesome.
RM: Yeah, if the name needed to change, I think it was a pretty easy change to make, to drop the word "Mormon" from it. The Tabernacle Choir still evokes the same images and identifies us and so I think it was, all things considered, it was a fairly smooth, easy transition to make for us.
MJ: That's been my impression as well so I think that's, that's amazing. I want to kind of go back in time a little bit now and talk about some things from your growing up, both of you. Mack, I read that you began playing the piano at the age of four and that your mother drove you 40 miles out of town to piano lessons, and then that your grandmother took you to your first, then known as Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert, at age 10. When you think about those two women, your mother, and your grandmother, how do you feel toward them, in regard to gratitude for introducing you to this music?
MW: Well, you know, like most mothers and grandmothers, they make you what you are. And in my particular case, both in my home and in my grandmother's home, there were pianos. And I always think, "What if there hadn't been a piano there?" Then I may not have been able to develop my talents in a certain sort of way. And my father passed away when I was only nine years old and I have one sister, so I had a grandmother, a mother, and a sister. So I was surrounded with lots of females if you will, and, you know, it had a profound effect upon my upbringing and also in developing my talents, if you will,
MJ: Yeah. I love that my mom just posted a picture the other day on Facebook, her parents when she was little, they saved up their money to buy her a piano and the piano is now in my sister's home. And my mom was like, now another little girl plays that piano and it's her granddaughter. And so I think that a lot of parents make sacrifices for their kids to have music in their home and I think that that's a beautiful thing. Ryan, when did you first become aware of the Tabernacle Choir in your memory?
RM: Well, my parents always played it on Sunday mornings, so it's always what I woke up to on Sunday morning. I didn't actually hear the choir in person until I was 18 years old and right before I came to BYU, as a student, that summer, when I came out to visit the campus, I was able to go to "Music and the Spoken Word." And I was blown away because hearing the choir in person is not the same thing at all, it's great on a recording. But to be in that space, and to hear them live was was life-changing. Yeah, it was a really fantastic experience.
MJ: And you've had quite an eclectic musical experience. We read somewhere that you were in a Led Zeppelin cover band, is that true?
RM: Well, I was in I was in a rock band in high school. And we did covers and yes, we covered "The Ocean," by Led Zeppelin and many other things REM, the doors, lots of different things. But yeah I had a pretty eclectic experience. Growing up, I sang in an episcopal boy choir and so I was exposed to music of other churches and spent many Sundays going to two different churches on Sunday. So I could have that experience, then going to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints afterward. So I spent a lot of time and also a music director for a Catholic Church for many years in Boston, so I had many great experiences and have tried to bring some of that great music into the tradition of the choir too, which has been really fun.
MJ: Yeah. What music would you both say influences you now, as you do this work? What do you listen to for inspiration?
RM: I'm going to say the music of Mack Wilberg.
MJ: Well played.
MW: Well I was going to say, as always, music of the master composers. And not only just master composers, but, you know, I do a lot of CD collecting, book collecting, and I listen to quite obscure things as well, composers that you wouldn't, certainly would not be everyday names or names that would be readily recognized. But I'm always searching, I'm very curious, even at my age, I'm still curious about things. And I just heard a piece on the radio driving to the office today that I had not heard and so as soon as I got to the parking lot, the piece was still playing and so I had to look it up on the playlist to see what the piece was and I'm quite intrigued, and I'm gonna have to get the recording.
MJ: Absolutely. Anything else that you would say inspires you, Ryan?
RM: I had no idea that corral is even a thing.
Well, I would agree with that. One of the great things for me is I get to do the Temple Square Corral, which is, it's a training choir to get into the Tabernacle Choir and that's going on right now. And we usually do a large work and so last year, we did the Brahms Requiem, right now we're doing Chichester Psalms of Bernstein and I think no matter what you're doing in music, you come back to those high standards that were set by the master composers and they influence everything that we do.
Yeah, yeah, it's part of the audition process for new members coming into the choir. And it runs from January through April, along with a choir school. And so we put on a concert every year and that's sort of their initiation so that when they step into the Tabernacle Choir, they're ready to go.
MW: And it's really a very important part of, of the training of our singers in theTabernacle Choir. The choir school, and then the coral are both just really a great part of what we do and Ryan does a great job with the corral.
MJ: That's so neat. So you mentioned that Mack's work has influenced and inspired you. How would you say that Mack has mentored you, Ryan?
RM: Oh, my goodness. Well, he's been mentoring me for years.
MW: I remember when he walked into my office as an 18-year-old at BYU.
RM: Yeah. I mean, he was one of my main teachers at BYU and has continued to be a tremendous influence on me, including his arrangements. I think he's one of the great choral arrangers of our day, in fact, I know he is. And I certainly am still learning from the things that he writes and studying them, quite frankly.
MJ: That's interesting to me that you remember him walking into your office because I imagine that a lot of people have walked into your office.
MW: Yeah, yeah, it's true. It's true. I taught at BYU for 15 years so you see a lot of students during that time. But I do have recollections of people and their auditions. I recollect people who've auditioned for the Tabernacle Choir, I've been here, now, almost 20 years, but I can still look at a person in the loft and remember their audition.
RM: I was skinny.
MW: Well, let's not talk about that part. Not on your part, on my part.
MJ: We all gain 'em and lose 'em here and there. I am curious about and I would like to talk a little bit more about the music that you all are creating here. And I was reading some different things about music that you've both arranged and I was blown away by the different places that some of your music has shown up, like President Reagan's funeral. Is there a particular arrangement that stands out to each of you as one that you're particularly proud of?
MW: For me, no. I always say it's the one that I'm currently working on because that's the one that you're giving the most attention and the one that you care about the most at the moment. And, you know, it's, I would say that you don't dwell too much on things you've done in the past, but you're always thinking about what you're currently doing, or what the future might bring.
MJ: Right. I would imagine it's also probably kind of like choosing a favorite child. Oh, it is. Absolutely. Yeah.
RM: How do you do that?
MW: So I mean, there are things-- there are pieces that you obviously, perhaps, like better than others, simply because the way they're crafted or the tune, or the text sometimes in itself, enables you do create something that you are particularly pleased with.
MJ: That makes sense. Ryan?
RM: I would say, in terms of this CD, I'll speak about his arrangements I love
MJ: I was gonna say, that might be easier.
RM: I love his "Love Divine, All Love's Excelling." And not only is the arrangement great, of course, but the text is so powerful.
MW: It is a great text. It's a great text and a great tune and when you have the two together, it really enables you to, I think do sometimes very creative and fulfilling sorts of things.
MJ: Yeah. And maybe that's a better question to ask. What songs stand out on this album for you?
MW: Oh, I really, again, it's hard for me. It's hard for me to select. And sometimes I like, well, not sometimes I would say most of the time you like other people's pieces better than your own?
RM: Yeah, you're a little too close to your own work.
MW: Sometimes you're a little too close to your own to give, to probably give them their full due.
MJ: That's interesting. So this next question, I don't want to use the word favorite, because I'm sure that there are many favorites in regard to guests that have performed with the choir. But are there any particular guests that stand out in your mind as being a particularly good memory?
MW: I would say I have great memories of everyone.
MJ: Mack doesn't like to pick favorites, that's what we're learning here.
MW: But I say that because we've been very fortunate in having really, not only great artists but great people as well. So I would say every guest artist I have I, of course, I have certain memories of every guest artist, but they've all been really, in their own unique way, really terrific. And so again, it's not that I'm trying to be coy about this, but every one of them, I think, brought something quite unique to our experience here.
MJ: Yeah, well, I've been to the past few Christmas concerts and it's amazing to me how different all of them are and the different things that the different guests bring to the table, it's remarkable. Ryan, what about for you? Is there any, or is there a specific memory that stands out in your mind that that maybe people would be interested to hear?
RM: Well, I'm gonna agree with Mack on this one and just say that you know, these guest artists that we have, they perform all over the world, they do many concerts, numerous concerts every year. And I think yet somehow to us when they come here, it doesn't feel like just another gig. I mean, really, by the time that they leave, we feel very connected to them and like we've had a very uplifting experience together. And so that's a really neat thing to share. I think the Christmas concert is pretty unique in that regard. And they've all been great in one way or another and like you said, they all bring something different to the table. So they all stand out for different reasons. I think one thing that stands out to me, and this has been quite a while now, but we had Nathan Gunn, come one year for Christmas, and in my high school every year, our last song and our concert was always "T'was the Night Before Christmas." And so Mack just, I think kind of randomly asked me to do an arrangement of that, not randomly, but asked me to do an arrangement of that piece that year. And so it was sort of like it comes full circle to do that piece with the Tabernacle Choir and with Nathan Gunn so it's something that kind of stands out a little bit.
MJ: Yeah. I love that you mentioned feeling connected to the artists by the end of that experience because I think that's something that people in the audience can sense as well. And I think part of that is that it doesn't feel like another concert for them because they've grown up watching, like Kristin Chenoweth where she talked about "I grew up watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir." And so I think that this is something where people have dreamed of having that experience.
MW: And also, what we do here, what we offer here is quite unique. I mean, no one ever performs in what you would call a concert hall that seats 21,000 people. They might perform in a stadium where there are that many people, but not in a concert setting as we have. And also just the the size of both the choir and the orchestra is something that's quite unique for people. And it's always interesting to be— if you happen to be in the conference center— and a guest artist us walks in the hall for the first time, I haven't been there all the time when this has happened, but I've been there sometimes. And it's really, I mean, it really literally takes their breath away, to walk into the hall.
And they sometimes post that on YouTube. And I think it was posted online, Kristin Chenoweth, obviously dramatically falling on the floor when she walked into the conference center. I think I'm not imagining that. But I think that was posted online. But it is a very impressive experience to walk into that hall.
We always say, Lloyd Newell usually says this at the end of our concert week, or when we have guests artists, doesn't matter whether it's Christmas or not. But we always say that once a guest artist has been here and experienced what we do, they become part of our family. And we actually articulate that, that now you're part of our family and I do think that they feel that way. And you know, we continue to have wonderful interchange and communication with many of our guests artists of the past.
MJ: Do you two usually, are you usually able to be involved in like taking them around the area? Or is that up to someone else?
MW: No, no. That's up to someone else. And we're grateful for those who volunteer their time to do that because that also makes—that also enhances their experience here.
MJ: Right. So if you had to dream big and have a wishlist of someone that hasn't performed with the choir previously that you would love to see perform with the choir in the future, is there someone?
MW: Oh that's giving our-- we don't have any secrets but that would be like giving our wishlist away. And then there's not a surprise.
MJ: Well, I think, and that's funny that you say that because the reason I was curious, is I think you said Kristin Chenoweth had been on that list for a long time. So it makes sense that you wouldn't want to tell me.
MW: Sometimes we have a person on our list and it's just never going to happen.
RM: And sometimes the schedules don't line up for quite a long time.
MW: It's a very tricky thing to secure an artist, a guest artist because oftentimes someone will want to come and perform, but their schedules don't-- they don't match our schedule. And so there's a lot of things that go into securing a guest artist, it's not just not simply because we want them and they want to come. But it's a bit of a challenge to make it all work, but when it does, it's a great thing.
MJ: Yeah. I, personally, would love to see Kelly Clarkson perform with the choir. She would be at the top of my list. So I'll tell you my secret so that you can make it happen.
RM: Very good. We'll write that down.
MJ: Are there any particular missionary opportunities that you've had over the years as you've traveled around the world with the choir that stand out in your mind?
RM: Well, the great thing about the choir is that missionary opportunities are happening all the time, every time they sing. And I would say that most of the missionary work the choir does, we don't know about it, we don't find out about it. And sometimes we do and sometimes we don't, but every time they sing, I feel like people's hearts are being touched.
I had an experience with an arrangement that I wrote of "Brightly Beams," which is on this new CD. And I received a letter from a man who was a member of the Assemblies of God church, and said, "I like this song, but your new arrangement has just made me love it." And he said, "Because of this arrangement, I can see past theological differences and I see Christ in you and in the choir. And thank you for writing it." So that was really touching to me. I think many times the choir is touching hearts lives and again, sometimes we know about it, sometimes we don't.
MJ: I love that.
MW: I think everything that we do, literally everything that we do, and this is part of our mission, is in some way, a missionary effort. And I've had some experiences that actually I don't really feel comfortable sharing, either because of my own feelings or others, so I don't have the permission, their permission to share the experiences. But I would agree with Ryan that, you know, what we're involved in is, I would say 95% missionary oriented.
MJ: Yeah. I love that you said it happens every time the choir sings. And in reality, I think it happens every time somebody turns on one of the songs, you know like they don't even have to be singing, it's been recorded. Speaking of recordings, you have this new album that's come out and I'm curious about what you hope people take away from listening to this latest album?
MW: The subtitle of the album, well, the title is, "Let Us All Press On." But the subtitle is "Hymns of praise and inspiration." And in selecting the particular hymns that are on this particular recording, I think joy was, even if the piece may be more meditative, we want there to be a joy and then also perhaps, affirmation, comfort, solace if you will. Just feeling like, as the album title implies pressing, pressing on, the first track on the CD is "Press Forward Saints." And, you know, we want the listener to feel that we can continue to press forward. And I think that with the admonition of President Nelson, and the feeling, the vigor of his leadership, I think that it's, that's part of what this album's about.
RM: I'm going to piggyback on that and just use the word hope. I think people can listen to this and it can give them that courage to press on to keep going. I mean, all of us have challenges, all of us have things that are difficult, all of us have great days and not so great days. And I think that this album can bring in peace, as the choir is so good at doing and give people the strength to hopefully keep going, keep striving, keep reaching higher, I think that it does all those things.
MJ: I love that. I was studying hope on Sunday with some friends for this "Come Follow Me," we have like a group study. And somebody looked up the word "hope" on this etymology website and it came up with the words "leaping with expectation." And I've been replaying that in my mind over and over again, like what does that mean? What does that look like? And I think it's movement towards that thing, and expecting things in return. And I think as Latter-day Saints, we have to hope we have to keep moving forward
MW: I think hope is one of the most important words in, in our language, really. You always have to have hope. Even when you get to be my age, you know, you still-- hope is a really important aspect of life.
RM: Even at your age, huh?
MW: Even at my age.
MJ: I think that music is incredibly powerful. I grew up in a home where my parents, they definitely tried to give us opportunities. I was not always greatest at like practicing my piano for my lessons.
MW: I don't think anyone is.
MJ: But I do think like, even now, my family will sit around and play guitar and sing together and I think that it is so powerful in inviting the spirit and in speaking to people's hearts. Why would you say that that is? What is it about music that makes it such a powerful tool?
MW: I have a theory and it's totally a theory, but I think that we bring this innate sense of sound, and particularly a musical sound, with us. Because everyone, everyone in the world responds in one way or another to sound and to musical sound. And you notice everybody, everybody has earphones or they have, what the what you call them now, earbuds. You know, probably much of the music they're listening to are not things that I would particularly care for myself, but everybody responds to music in a certain sort of way. And also, I always think about you hear people who have had out of body experiences or they have gone, they feel like they've gone to the other side, and then they've come back. And I think a lot of them relate the fact that the music that they hear there is indescribably beautiful. And I find that to be quite a comfort. I just think that music is such a part of all of us, and that we respond to it in ways that oftentimes we don't respond to, whether it be spoken word, or other or other forms of communication. And music can just go right to, right to our soul, if you will. And I think, I just kind of feel like that it must have been something that we brought with us.
MJ: I love that. Ryan, would you add anything to that?
RM: I don't know that I want to add to that. I think that's pretty great. I just, it's the divine language, you know, and it, it speaks to all of us. And the choir can be singing in different countries, and you don't have to understand a word of it but it speaks to everybody. It's divine and it's universal.
MW: It's, I mean, it's trite to say, but music is indeed a universal language. I mean, you can enjoy it, whether it be by a person from a completely different part of the world, completely different culture, and yet it communicates in a way that, of course, language cannot do.
MJ: I agree completely. I don't know if anyone gave you a heads up, but at the end of this podcast, we always ask the same question. And so that question is, what does it mean to you, personally, to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ? And I love this question, because I've been amazed as we've recorded 20 plus episodes now, everyone's answer is different. And so I'm curious for you, what does it mean to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
MW: Well, I like the word "all." And in fact, I think that that says it all, if you will because it is everything.
MJ: Yeah. It's all-encompassing.
MJ: Ryan, what about for you?
RM: Well, we talked about the word hope earlier and when you ask that question, the word that came into my mind was trust. And for me, to be all in means that you're trusting in God and in his influence in your life, and in Christ's ability to save and in the gospel plan, you're all in. And it's faith and it's trust and it's giving yourself over to the things that you know, are true.
MJ: Thank you. I am so grateful for this chance to sit down with you both, you've been a joy to be with and I think I speak for all the members of our church in saying thank you for your service and for your example and for sharing this music with us. So thank you so much.
MW: Thank you.
RM: It's been fun to talk to you. Thank you.
MJ: We are so grateful to Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy for joining us. You can pick up the choir's newest release, Let Us All Press On in Desert Book stores beginning on Friday, March 8. For more episodes of All In, visit LDSliving.com/podcasts. And please don't forget to leave us a review on iTunes. We will be taking a little break before our next episode, but we will be back with more episodes soon. Thanks for listening.