The Tanner Gift of Music concerts long have been the bastion of majestic choral blockbusters such as the Berlioz Requiem and Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” So why is James Taylor, one of America’s most beloved pop stars, fronting the Utah Symphony and Mormon Tabernacle Choir this weekend?
As Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg explained, the biennial concerts are “designed to touch as many people as possible.” More populist fare has found its way into the mix in recent years, as the events occasionally migrate from the Salt Lake Tabernacle to the 21,000-seat Conference Center across the street. Taylor is arguably the Tanner Gift of Music committee’s most populist choice yet, and his amiable music and gentlemanly stage presence melded beautifully with the choir and orchestra.
At age 65, Taylor’s baritone voice seems as warm, smooth and sweet as ever. He started off strong, joining the Utah Symphony on “Carolina in My Mind” and an exquisitely expressive performance of “Fire and Rain.” But the real magic began when the 360-voice choir sang backup to him on an unaccompanied performance of “Lonesome Road.” Taylor said the song had “died and gone to heaven” in the hands of the choir, and the kid-in-a-candy-store look on his face underscored the sentiment.
Taylor sang a dozen songs in all, some with the orchestra, some with the choir and some with his three-piece touring combo. “Up on the Roof,” “My Traveling Star” and a joyous rendition of “Shower the People” were among the more memorable numbers. “I hope this looks spontaneous,” he quipped before an encore performance of “Sweet Baby James.” “This actually is spontaneous,” he said after raucous applause coaxed him back for a second encore, “You Can Close Your Eyes.”
The Utah Symphony and Mormon Tabernacle Choir portions of the program were equally enjoyable. It’s always fun to hear these two Utah music institutions together, whether in an awe-inspiring Requiem Mass or cheerful show tunes. A lively performance of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” spiced up by Tad Calcara’s agile clarinet solos and Larry Zalkind’s equally virtuosic trombone, was one of the toe-tapping highlights of the night.
Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott nearly stole the show with his arrangement of “I Got Rhythm.” Other Gershwin tunes, including “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” sneaked into the mix, and Elliott’s panache earned a standing ovation nearly as noisy as the ones given to Taylor.
The Tanner Gift of Music presents James Taylor with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony. Mack Wilberg conducts.
When • Reviewed Friday; repeats tonight at 8
Where • LDS Conference Center, Salt Lake City
Running time • Two hours, including intermission
Tickets • The free tickets have all been distributed, but there will be a standby line at the north gate of Temple Square and overflow seating in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
Parking • It’s a busy weekend in downtown Salt Lake City, with major events including Comic Con at the Salt Palace and the Greek Festival on 300 West. Plan your transportation accordingly.