Renowned director of Mormon Tabernacle Choir will conduct hymn festival in Fort Worth

One of the most prolific composers and arrangers of the 21st century sits near a window with a view in a studio above his garage.

It is here at sunrise where Mack Wilberg, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, creates his music, folk tunes, sacred hymns and stirring anthems, masterpieces that have been recorded and performed by choral groups around the world.

His instrument isn’t a concert grand piano but an upright spinet.

The worn heirloom originally belonged to his wife’s grandparents in Vermont. With each house move over the past 30-plus years Wilberg has brought the serviceable instrument with him.

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“I’m just used to it,” Wilberg, 63, said from his Salt Lake City home. “It can become quite out of tune, but that doesn’t seem to bother me.”

Neither does an occasional dead key, its note silenced by a broken string.

Melodies and harmonies flow from him, like a fount of blessing, never ceasing, as the old hymn says.

“We all come into this world with our various — what’s the word? — dispositions,” Wilberg said. “Some people have a mathematical mind. Some can learn a foreign language easily. Some are artistic, and so on. Mine was music and it manifested itself early in life.”

His work will be celebrated Sunday night at the “Mack Wilberg Hymn Festival”, a free concert, at Broadway Baptist Church. Wilberg will conduct a full orchestra and direct a 200-voice choir made up of choir members from Broadway Baptist, First United Methodist and Arborlawn Methodist churches.

‘A tremendous wall of sound‘

A coal miner’s son, Wilberg grew up in Castle Dale, Utah, population 1,590. He gravitated to the family’s piano and by age 4 began playing by ear, recreating music he heard at home on a record player and on the then-popular Lawrence Welk television show.

Recognizing her son’s musical intelligence, his mother, an elementary school teacher, drove 30 miles every Saturday to what is now Utah State University Eastern so he could benefit from piano lessons.

When Wilberg was 10 he accompanied his grandmother to the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square one Thursday evening to hear the famous 360-voice choir rehearse.

“It’s one thing to hear the choir on TV or on a recording, but it’s quite another experience to hear the choir live,” Wilberg said. “When I heard them, for the first time, it was this tremendous wall of sound.”

That impressionable boy could not have imagined that one day the members of that choir would train their eyes upon him alone, as he stood on a podium, arms raised, baton in hand.

Wilberg earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Brigham Young University and then received a master’s degree and a doctorate in music at the University of Southern California. Ten years ago the father of four became music director of the Tabernacle Choir after serving as its assistant director.

‘A product of synergy‘

Wilberg is responsible for all the choir’s music, annual auditions (choristers can sing for 20 years or until age 60, whichever comes first) and its 100-piece orchestra. The choir travels worldwide and performs a remarkable body of work, more than 300 pieces of music each year.

While humble and soft spoken, the director is known for his no-nonsense insistence on excellence. A Forbes magazine story titled “Leadership Lessons from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir” described Wilberg as leading the choir “with the tenacious confidence of General (George) Patton.”

“We try to operate on the principle of E Pluribus Unum,” Wilberg has said. “We have hundreds of very talented people. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. True excellence is a product of synergy.”

President Ronald Reagan was the first to call the Mormon Tabernacle Choir “America’s Choir.” President George W. Bush hailed the goodwill ambassadors of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a “national treasure.”

Wilberg himself is embraced as a treasured gift to choral singing.

“I love conducting Mack Wilberg’s pieces,” said Stephen Holcomb, professor of music and director of choral activities at Dallas Baptist University. “He has such creative harmonic ideas for familiar hymn melodies that bring new excitement and freshness for the singers, instrumentalists and the listeners.. . . I always look forward to any of his new releases. It’s like discovering a new gemstone.”

‘Blessed‘ and ‘lucky‘

Wilberg’s music was sung at the National World War II Memorial dedication in 2004.

Later he was asked to write two arrangements for a military choir and orchestra. His arrangements for “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and the Navy Hymn “Eternal Father, Strong To Save” were performed at the state funeral of President Gerald Ford.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself and say how lucky and blessed I’ve been,” Wilberg said of the path life has taken him.

The ascending journey led the musician from his boyhood home in a tiny Utah mining town to concert halls abroad and last year up the steps of the nation’s capitol at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, where Wilberg directed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in his own moving arrangement of “America the Beautiful”, accompanied by the U.S. Marine Band.

The Mack Wilberg Hymn Festival

  • 7 p.m. Sunday
  • Broadway Baptist Church
  • 305 W. Broadway Ave., Fort Worth
  • The event is free, but you must register in advance for tickets at . Scroll down and click on the hymn festival banner to register.

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The L.D. Bell choir remembered their friend and former president Tabatha Romaker with a special a cappella piece on Tuesday, May 9. Chris Harris, an L.D. Bell graduate, wrote “For You, I Sing Hallelujah” when he read about Romaker’s death on Faceb McClatchymfaulkner-telegram