Filling the Choir Seats

BYU alumni gently raise sacred strains in the world’s most famous choir.

It’s a muggy summer afternoon as dozens of visitors stroll the lush grounds of the historic Ravinia park gardens outside of Chicago. They are surrounded by the incessant high-pitched hum of cicadas, noisy insects that have left a 17-year underground existence to eat and mate at the end of their life cycles.

Attention is turned from the cicada chorus as the evening’s guest artists saunter into the park’s 3,200-seat amphitheater for a sound check. They open their mouths and reveal themselves as the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Stephen R. Smoot, the park’s artistic manager, welcomes the choir to Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Their appearance, he says, is the most anticipated concert of the season, which is high praise, considering the summer docket includes jazz great Wynton Marsalis, country singer Lyle Lovett, flutist Sir James Galway, crooner Tony Bennett, and A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.

The June performance in the century-old park is one of nine Mormon Tabernacle Choir concerts during its 2007 tour through seven cities in Canada, New York, and the Midwest. For the more than 300 singers in the choir, the 13-day tour reflects the collective years—thousands of them—they have been singing. Much of that singing took place at BYU; two-thirds of the vocalists are university alumni. Most of them rehearsed under the batons of BYU conductors, including Ralph Woodward, Ronald J Staheli (BA ’72), Mack Wilberg (BM ’79), and Rosalind M. Hall (MM ’92).

“I tell people who want to be in the choir that they need to sing, sing, sing,” says Wilberg, the associate director of the Tabernacle Choir and a former conductor of the Men’s Chorus and Concert Choir at BYU. “Singing experience is vital, and what makes a university musical education especially helpful is that students are introduced to a variety of different composers and styles in a rigorous, focused educational setting. That experience gave our BYU and other university choir members an advantage when they auditioned.”

“We certainly consider BYU students part of our future pool of choir members,” adds Scott L. Barrick (BA ’80), the choir’s general manager. “I’m sure some of the students who sat in the Marriott Center audience and watched us perform at BYU’s Homecoming Spectacular this fall will be members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir someday. And I’m confident our BYU alumni who performed felt as if they were coming home to the university.”

Working in Harmony

In preparation for the evening’s concert, choir voices resonate from the pavilion at Ravinia park as director Craig D. Jessop (MA ’76) gives instructions from the podium and Wilberg watches from the sound board. Each of the two conductors considers the other his best friend. At first glance, however, they could not be more different.

Jessop is outgoing, with an easy smile and an exuberant approach to life. While directing the choir during a Music and the Spoken Word rehearsal earlier this year, he enjoined the vocalists to communicate the joy and happiness inherent in Wilberg’s composition and demonstrated what he wanted by singing a passage of the song, revealing his own superb voice. The choir quickly lifted to a more lyrical cadence.

Karen Redd (’74) of Farmington, Utah, says Jessop motivates the choir to feel the passion he holds for the music. “He really knows how to pull our strings and make something great happen.”

Wilberg, on the other hand, is focused, reserved, and a bit intimidating if you don’t know he is a private person who communicates best through his compositions and arrangements. Well-known in choral circles, his music is performed and recorded worldwide. At a 2005 national conference for choral educators in Los Angeles, Wilberg’s introduction elicited an eruption of applause lasting several minutes. No one was happier than Jessop, who continually seeks to showcase his colleague.

As dissimilar as the two men appear, they have similar backgrounds.

Wilberg and Jessop grew up in small Utah towns with strong mothers who recognized their talents. Wilberg’s father died when he was 4, and Jessop’s father broke his neck in a life-changing accident when Jessop was a child. Jessop says his mother took him to free concerts at Temple Square.

Wilberg’s mother hauled him throughout central Utah for piano and theory lessons, and Wilberg eventually began a long and fruitful relationship at BYU with piano faculty member Paul C. Pollei, who instilled in him a love for choral music.

“I left BYU after one year to serve a mission and was uncertain whether to stay in music,” Wilberg says. “When I returned to school, I walked into my ward and Paul Pollei was the bishop. I believe it was providential. He led me right back, both at BYU and in the ward. I became the choir director, which contributed to my passion for choral music.” Later as a BYU professor, Wilberg worked extensively with Pollei again and performed with him in the university’s American Piano Quartet.

Jessop made a name for himself in Cache County, Utah, singing and organizing musical events. He opted to get his master’s degree at BYU after his Utah State University mentor, William Ramsey, insisted he study with Ralph Woodward. “I had a fantastic experience with Dr. Woodward,” Jessop says. “I admired his talent and learned so much from him.”

Jessop later had a distinguished career directing music and performing in the Air Force before he was tapped to be associate director of the Tabernacle Choir in 1995. In 1999 he became the choir’s director, succeeding longtime conductor Jerold D. Ottley (BA ’61).

When the world-famous King’s Singers visited the Tabernacle for a concert with the choir and the Utah Symphony in 1998, they asked for—and got—an arrangement by Wilberg of British and American folk songs and hymns. It was then that Jessop realized he wanted Wilberg to join the leadership of the choir. It took three requests before Wilberg, then a professor at BYU’s School of Music, agreed.

Almost 10 years later, each of the musicians describes his experience with the choir as his dream job, and the pair has developed a strong relationship based on an appreciation for each other’s abilities.

“I really respect Craig’s talent, and there is no one else I would prefer to have directing my music, including me,” Wilberg says. “When I’m on the podium, I don’t hear it correctly because I don’t get the full balance.”

When Wilberg watches Jessop direct one of his newest compositions in rehearsal, the composer frequently checks his scores for misplaced notes and quietly advises the conductor on points of interpretation. The relationship is symbiotic: Jessop and the choir regularly get to premiere works by one of the greatest living choral composers, and Wilberg gets a trial run of his works before sending them to his publisher, Oxford Press, which counts Wilberg as its biggest-selling composer.

“Mack is absolutely wonderful,” Jessop says. “I am so fortunate to be around a truly gifted composer, arranger, conductor, pianist, and organist who happens to sing and play many other instruments. I’d love to go on vacation with him, but unless we take 300 of our favorite singers with us, that isn’t going to happen.”

Sacrifice For Song

It isn’t exactly a vacation, but in Chicago, Jessop and Wilberg are enjoying a trip with each other—and more than 300 other musicians.

Long before the concert begins at sunset, the 36-acre parkland fills with picnickers who bring lawn chairs, tables, coolers, and baskets of food. Many of them will not see the choir during the performance, but Ravinia provides a powerful sound system that broadcasts live performances for its lawn crowd.

The clear, rich sound for which the choir is known fills the amphitheater and spreads through the park via the sound system that evening. Jessop and Wilberg lead the vocalists through a series of patriotic, showy, and spiritual numbers, as well as three enthusiastic encores.

For choir members, like their directors, the privilege of performing with a world-renowned musical organization in famous venues around the globe is a dream come true. Cecelia Harris Fielding (BA ’74), of Orem, Utah, was a member of Ralph Woodward’s A Cappella Choir at BYU and clearly remembers the moment she knew she wanted a place with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

“As a child I watched general conference at home and saw my Aunt Mary sing in the choir. I thought it would be great to be singing there, too,” recalls Fielding, the campus news manager at BYU. “But it wasn’t until Ralph Woodward took us to the Tabernacle to perform in an afternoon session of general conference that I sat in those seats amid that wonderful sound and told myself, ‘This is what I want—really want—to do.’”

For Joseph D. Ogden (BA ’95), it was watching the choir perform at the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics. As an Olympics volunteer with Church Public Affairs, he had taken several media groups to see the choir and remembered how much he had enjoyed singing in Mack Wilberg’s Concert Choir as a BYU student. He brushed up his singing skills, and despite second-guessing himself with “What if I’ve lost it?” possibilities, he sent a try-out tape and began the audition process. Ogden thought he was a baritone, but as Wilberg listened to him, he had Ogden sing in the lower ranges. Ogden left the room a bass, well on his way to becoming a new choir member.

The stories of choir members vary widely. Some trained their whole lives in the best musical programs and dreamed of the choir from the time they were young. Others discovered their talent later in life and found themselves in the choir almost by accident. Some studied music at BYU, while others majored in engineering or humanities or political science while pursuing their musical passion through elective courses. Their post-graduation lives have followed similarly divergent paths.

An associate dean in BYU’s Marriott School of Management, Ogden used his managerial expertise in consulting work prior to joining the choir. The side venture was the first thing to go. “The 10 to 15 hours a week I spent on business is now taken up with the choir, or on the freeway getting to the choir,” he says.

The grueling pace has made the idea of sacrifice—of family time, sleep, job mobility, and leisure activities—a recurring theme among choir members.

“Sometimes the bigger sacrifice comes from the families who are at home,” Wilberg says. “They hold the family together so a spouse and/or parent can share their gift.”

Thursday rehearsals and Sunday performances each week take their toll, as do the concerts, recordings, and other rehearsals.

“Despite the privilege of being in the choir, there were times when I wondered if the sacrifice of time away from home was worth it,” says Fielding, whose tenure with the choir ended after the tour this summer. Choir rules require that members retire after 20 years or when they turn 60, whichever comes first. “Lucky for me I had a supportive husband and sons who cheered me on. I knew I had a talent, and I was glad to give it away.” As she finishes her two decades with the choir, Fielding’s vitae includes performing during more than 1,000 broadcasts of Music and the Spoken Word, 89 sessions of general conference, 20 Christmas concerts, two U.S. presidential inaugurations, and dozens of performances throughout the world. She has also participated in recording more than 40 albums. The schedule that produces such a résumé in 20 years demands a lot from performers.

“I love the choir and consider singing a form of bearing your testimony, but I miss attending church in my own ward,” says Terri Healy Graff (BS ’81).Music and the Spoken Word performances often mean choir members must find other wards to attend. “The ward members probably think my husband is a single father. It’s hard to trade the spirit that I feel, however, when the prophet enters the room during a rehearsal,” Graff adds.

Rewarding Music

Alta Mellinger, a Ravinia concertgoer who has been following the choir since the 1960s, says she put the choir on her summer plans as soon as she heard they were coming to Illinois. “Music makes friends of us all,” she says, enjoying a pre-concert meal with her husband, Erwin, at one of the dining establishments in Ravinia park.

The Mellingers sing in their Mennonite chorus but find time to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir every Sunday. Erwin compliments the directors for the arrangements and for the precision they get from such a large choir. “I have collected Mormon Tabernacle Choir albums, tapes, and CDs for more than 40 years, and they just keep getting better,” he says.

For choir members, the praise of audiences is a good portion of their reward, though the choir offers much personal satisfaction as well. Like many choir members, Cheri Oaks Ringger (BS ’75) considers performing at Gethsemane and during the dedication of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple to be highlights of her choir tenure.

Ogden says the choir is personally important to him. “Singing with the choir adds an extra dimension to who I am and how I look at the world. Music has a softening impact that removes the sharp edges from life.”

Ogden also enjoys being one thread in the large fabric of a choir that influences so many lives.

“I met a lady in Chautauqua, New York, who grabbed my arm when she found out I was in the choir,” he says of an experience on a 2003 tour. “She told me the choir was the only thing she looked forward to in the year after her husband died. She added that not only does she listen to the choir every single morning, but she also changed her vacation so she could hear us.”

The woman came to both the matinee and evening show, and when the choir finished, she sobbed as she sought out Ogden to give him a hug.

“She must have said thank you at least a dozen times. In those moments you know the power of inspired music.”

As the Ravinia concert audience thins, the choir climbs into the bus for an hour-long ride to a hotel in the west suburbs. By the time they put suitcases in the hall for pickup, it’s after midnight. At the 6 a.m. breakfast the next morning, tour organizers applaud the group for an excellent concert and within an hour choir members are back on the bus, headed to a concert in Cincinnati.

The fatigue shows on many of their faces, but one clearly high-spirited countenance remains. It belongs to Craig Jessop, who is as bouncy as he was at the conclusion of the previous night’s successful performance.

“That’s to be expected,” Fielding says. “He glows from within. Fortunately, it’s catching, and by the time the choir performs again, we will have the joy of singing Mack’s inspired music and will have picked up some of Craig’s shine.”

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