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Tabernacle Choir gets new director

Published March 29, 2008 1:27 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mack Wilberg, who has earned international acclaim as a composer and arranger of religious music, is the new director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Choir President Mac Christensen announced his selection to lead the choir Friday at the Tabernacle on Temple Square, saying that when choir members heard the news the night before "they stood and clapped."

"I am honored and humbled by the confidence in me shown by President [Thomas S.] Monson and the First Presidency," said Wilberg, who is known for his quiet demeanor and self-effacing personality. "Those of us associated with the choir stand on the shoulders of many who came before - directors, singers, accompanists and administrators."

He replaces Craig Jessop, who resigned earlier this month.

Wilberg said he plans to follow Jessop's direction with the choir.

"Craig's legacy will continue," he said. "Our personalities are different but our styles are similar."

Jessop has granted no interviews since resigning, and sent an e-mail to reporters requesting that he not be contacted.

But Wilberg, who said he and Jessop were best friends who always knew what the other was thinking, added he is in constant contact with the former director.

"He's doing great," Wilberg said Friday.

In his new position, Wilberg will oversee all musical and creative aspects of the choir, the Orchestra at Temple Square, the Temple Square Chorale, and the Bells on Temple Square, selecting repertoire for concerts, recordings and tours, as well as the creative direction for the weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast. He also helps select and train new choir members, who have to learn 350 to 400 music pieces each year.

Wilberg said the assignment is "overwhelming. It is like being on a speeding train that never stops to let a passenger off. But it's the best kind of pressure cooker. Every member of the choir is a magnificent musician."

Christensen also announced the appointment of Edgar Thompson, former director of the University of Utah School of Music, as Wilberg's interim assistant. He will remain in the position until choir administrators can conduct a nationwide search starting this summer.

Thompson has been the music director for the university's A Cappella Choir, as well as former conductor of the Utah Symphony Chorus and a former member of the choir. For the past two years, he and his wife, Joann, have been serving the choir as missionary volunteers.

"Life is full of surprises," Thompson said at the press conference. "When I was named chair of the U.'s music department, I thought it would last three years. It lasted 22 years. After I retired, I thought I was done but than I got called on a mission to serve the choir. Now this comes as a great honor."

Wilberg, who grew up in rural Emery County before earning his bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University and his master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Southern California, already had been acting director of the choir, an organization he joined as associate music director in May 1999. He is a former Brigham Young University music professor.

His compositions and arrangements have been performed and recorded by choral organizations worldwide. In addition to the many compositions he has written for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, his works have most recently been performed by such artists as Rene Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Bryn Terfel, the King's Singers, Audra McDonald, and narrators Walter Cronkite and Claire Bloom.

In a Salt Lake Tribune interview last spring previewing the premiere of Wilberg's "Requiem," Todd Waldman, U.S. music editor for Oxford University Press, a publisher of choral music, called Wilberg "one of our most important composers."

"It's not just churches with Utah and Mormon affiliations buying his music," he said. "It's all over the country. It's amazing how quickly this has gone from something regional to something national."

The broad appeal of his music is witnessed by its use at the funerals of Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

pstack@sltrib.com