Square in Salt Lake City, Utah.
CITY — There’s nothing particularly Mormon, or
American, about “Ubi Caritas.” It’s a Gregorian
chant at least 11 centuries old, was rearranged by French
composer Maurice Durufle in 1960 and has been sung by
church choral groups around the world.
But I can
tell you that when it is performed by a certain famous
choir in a certain quirky old building in downtown Salt
Lake City, that melody works a particular magic.
rise and fall, singing a cappella in Latin. The sound
ripples to the back of the hall, guided by the curving
plaster ceiling. The final “amen” grows to 10, 15, 20
syllables, each one a slow-motion acrobat in flight.
how it went on a recent Sunday morning at the Salt Lake
Tabernacle at Temple Square, a singular American music
venue commissioned by Brigham Young and completed in 1867.
singers who call this building home are known as the
Mormon Tabernacle Choir — or rather, they were until
Oct. 5, when leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints renamed them the Tabernacle Choir at
world beyond these walls, the group has been needled for
its squeaky-clean image and song list, and for performing
at President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
singers are a beloved avatar for the church, offering
musical balm for all, backed by their own Twitter feed
(since 2009) and YouTube channel (since 2012).
As for the
building that houses them, one unimpressed 19th century
visitor called it “a pumpkin half-buried in the sand.”
To me, as light danced on its aluminum roof, the
tabernacle looked like a surfacing submarine.
roof (a 1947 addition) is a great disguise for a frontier
relic and a striking element among the landmark church
buildings that make up Temple Square.
site’s singular history is more than enough reason to
eavesdrop on choir practice (most Thursday nights) or to
see a broadcast performance (every Sunday morning) or to
drop by to hear a pin drop (which happens hourly to show
off the hall’s acoustics).
night rehearsal in the tabernacle, free to the public at
7:30, is a good place to start.
you’re inside, look at the choir loft, where choir
members will be meandering to their assigned seats, men on
one side, women on the other, and making notes on their
director Mack Wilberg probably will be up front with a
microphone, delivering corrections and commendations with
a dry wit: “Ladies, you sound great. Men, you’ve got
to listen more to the ladies.”
To win a
place in this group, singers must belong to the church, be
at least 25, no older than 55, and live within 100 miles
of Temple Square. Besides an audition, they must pass an
interview and music theory test.
For the 1
in 5 applicants who makes the grade, there are hundreds of
songs to learn and a year-round schedule of rehearsals,
broadcasts, performances, and sometimes recording sessions
To make way
for new blood, once choir members have sung for 20 years
or have reached the year of their 60th birthday, they’re
central. Unlike much of show business, singing in the
choir is about disappearing into a crowd, a priority that
harmonizes with many LDS church teachings.
there is no paycheck; all choir members are volunteers.
Administration and logistics are handled by a general
manager and a paid staff of about a dozen.
outside Temple Square, ever-more-secular Salt Lake City
(population about 200,000) offers ever more entertainment
of my visit, the Utah Symphony was in Abravanel
the church bans the consumption of alcohol and coffee,
brew pubs, coffee houses and even a few distilleries dot
pictured this in 1847, when the choir formed under church
president Young. The church itself had been founded less
than 20 years before by Joseph Smith in upstate New York.
pioneers had just begun settling in Utah, and the Salt
Lake Valley was nearly empty.
long, Young was planning a temple (a tall, stone landmark
that took 40 years to complete) and the tabernacle, which
would be made of Utah pine, about 75 feet tall, 150 feet
wide and 250 feet long, capped by a gently curving roof.
worked with local architects and a bridge designer to
craft one big room with uninterrupted sightlines and
lively acoustics so a preacher’s voice could carry. That
meant thinking outside the architectural box.
eventually chose an oval design, the roof held aloft and
shaped by wooden lattice truss arches — a
bridge-builder’s trick — held together by iron nails,
bolts and wooden pegs above 44 stone piers.
As you walk
the aisles, look closely and you’ll see that the
builders painted pine columns to look like marble and
disguised pine benches to look like oak. (In the last 20
years, the church has replaced most of the pine benches
also notice the organ, an 11,623-pipe affair that towers
behind the choir loft like the bow of a great ship. It
isn’t the original but a descendant of one built in the
1860s, using hardware from Boston and pipes carved from
more Utah pines.
the front row and you hear the music hit you right
away,” Stephanie Wood, an alto who is an 18-year choir
member, told me. “You sit in the back row and it feels
like it wraps around the building before you hear it.”
choir loft, she said, there are spots “where you can’t
hear really at all. You sit there and you think, ‘I’m
singing by myself.’ ”
building “oozes history,” said Matt Harmer, a
54-year-old attorney and father of seven who started
singing baritone with the choir this year.
worried that singing would cut into his skiing,
rock-climbing and hiking, but the first time he stood in
the tabernacle to sing “Come, Come Ye Saints,” a hymn
from the church’s early days, he realized he had chosen
very emotional,” he said, “just to have a chance to
sing this song that has meant so much to so many people in
this faith, in this building that people sacrificed so
hard to build.”
visitors don’t get invited to climb into the rafters,
but if you could (or if you peek at my video at lat.ms/sitessoundsslc),
you would see 21st century seismic upgrades alongside
rawhide skins, which the pioneers tied around split planks
to strengthen them. You would also see thousands of organ
pipes, mostly clustered above the stage.
as pioneer pipes, date to the building’s first days and
stand as tall as 30 feet, producing tones that seem more
seismic than sonic.
And if an
organist should start to play loudly while a newcomer is
climbing around those pipes — well, let’s just say
that for a few moments during my exploration with master
keyboard technician Robert Poll, death by bass note seemed
a real possibility.
For a less
rattling introduction to the building’s acoustics,
visitors may attend the tabernacle’s free daily organ
recital (noon Mondays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays). The
pin-drop demonstrations also take place, typically every
hour on the hour, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The day I
watched, organist Linda Margetts dropped three pins, one
by one, and then a nail — which resounded like a rifle
shot — to show how freely sound travels about 170 feet
from the stage to the back row.
Margetts played, her hands dancing among the
instrument’s five keyboards, then pausing while her feet
worked the pedals. At one point, tapping out 16th-note
triplets, she looked like an Irish dancer, arms at her
sides, feet flying.
That was a
spectacle I hadn’t expected. But I still hadn’t
experienced the full tabernacle choir.
you need an evening performance or the Sunday morning
broadcast of the show that made the choir famous.
& the Spoken Word,” a 30-minute melange of song,
organ music and inspirational narration, began as a radio
show in 1929.
the choir was releasing its first commercial album on
Columbia Records. By the 1960s, the broadcast was
televised, and the choir was singing for presidents,
touring the world, and working with the New York
Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
collaborators have included Audra McDonald, Yo-Yo Ma,
James Taylor and most recently Kristin Chenoweth, who
joined this year’s holiday shows.
Sunday morning, men wore dark suits and ties, and women
were in beige gowns.
tabernacle’s benches, typically arranged to hold as many
as 3,000 listeners, were about two-thirds full. A church
hostess warmed up the crowd and welcomed groups from
Ecuador, Myanmar and Taiwan.
countdown to open the broadcast, a narrator welcomed us
and organist Richard Elliott leaned over the keyboards.
a sophisticated lighting system threw intense colors onto
the curving wall behind the choir — sometimes blue,
sometimes purple, sometimes red, which made the gold-leaf
organ pipes glow like flames.
hymns, folk songs and other pieces followed, including
Edgy it was
not. But those 360 voices, raised together, were something
to hear. I eventually spotted Wood among the altos and
Harmer with the baritones.
there are a lot of people who enjoy doing stage
productions and they like doing solos, and that’s never
been my forte,” Wood had told me. “I have always loved
being one of many in creating an amazing sound.”
don’t want 360 soloists,” Harmer had said.
In no time,
the broadcast was winding up. It ended with the choir’s
voices on “God be with you till we meet again” —
predictable, perhaps, but warm and comforting on a winter