My first memories of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are not pleasant. As a child, I always associated their sound with fasting pangs and the headache that inevitably followed. I once explained in another post my theory about Pavlovian phenomena affecting certain aspects of my church worship; this is just another example of that. As a result, for years, one hymn from the shadow of the everlasting hills was enough to split my skull. Hearing nearly four-hundred people singing like buffalos all at the same time is impressive, I suppose; but, so is a stampede (which would also probably have the same effect on my head).

I do not mean to disparage the director during this period. My (few) personal interactions with him have been very positive and I believe him to be one of the nicest, kindest men alive. In addition, it is such a difficult, relentless, unforgiving job in so many ways that his longevity alone is enough to earn my respect. Besides, having spoken with friends both in and closely associated with the choir at the time, there were many logistical issues inherent in the system that were major impediments to elevating the choir’s sound and artistry to a professional level. Under the circumstances, many a director would have been thrilled just to get the choir through performances without a major train wreck.

In 1999 all of that changed. Craig Jessop, Mack Wilberg, and Barlow Bradford enacted a transformation nothing short of miraculous. The orchestra was a welcome addition to be sure, but I could hardly believe the change in the choir. Lowering the minimum age, instituting the Temple Square Chorale training regimen, better division of responsibilities between conductors (my own conjecture), and, above all, the incredible abilities these men brought to the plate really resurrected the choir’s sound, artistry, and relevance.

Unfortunately, Brothers Jessop and Bradford have since moved on to other projects (oh, Barlow, Barlow, come back, come back!), but thankfully Mack has remained. I do not think that the members of the church at large fully appreciate how fortunate we are to have him at the musical helm. I am not sure how much he wanted the job when it was offered him back in 1999. Let me acknowledge beforehand that what I am about to say is based solely on Mormon choral legend, but the story goes that he only agreed to take the post because President Hinckley called him up and asked him personally. This is likely oversimplified and exaggerated, but what I do know for a fact is that many excellent conductors in the Church would have much preferred to stay where they were than tackle such an overwhelming project. So, whether the story is true or not, I certainly would not begrudge him a little reluctance.

Dr. Wilberg has an international reputation as a conductor, clinician, and composer / arranger. Over the past few years, critics within the Church have grumbled that some of his recent arrangements have been too “formulaic.” Oh, how spoiled we have become. Taking into account the intended venue and context of most of his newer hymn arrangements, not to mention the impossible demands on his time both in his responsibilities to the choir as well as his myriad of other guest appearances and professional obligations, his efforts (and results) are consistently superhuman.

As a choral composer myself, I stand continually in awe of his ability to spin straw into gold at such a breakneck pace. Say what you will about his less successful efforts (Mozart – the layperson’s archetype of a great composer – wrote many mediocre things, you know), I prefer the least of Mack’s arrangements to the predictable, sloppy, overblown, migraine-inducing offerings of years past. (Disclaimer: This is not to say that the choir never performed any good arrangements in the previous twenty-five years, I am speaking in general terms.) And make no mistake, when Mack is brilliant, he is brilliant. Furthermore, on a personal note, he once did me a very unselfish favor that a musician with a larger ego might never have considered.

Anyway, when Craig Jessop stepped down last year, I was pleased that church leadership had the sense to promptly appoint “Rumplestiltskin” as his successor without making him endure the indignity of a “worldwide search.” It would have been beyond foolish to let him slip through their fingers. Finding someone of comparable caliber that actually wanted the job might have been harder than some people think (besides, he might have wanted everyone’s first-born child if he left).

So, for the past year, I have been anxiously awaiting the appointment of a new associate director, nervous about what it would mean for the choir’s future. Yesterday, it was announced that Ryan T. Murphy has been selected. This is wonderful news – I could not be happier with the choice. I sang in a choir that he directed several years ago and I have the utmost confidence in his talents and abilities as a conductor and arranger. Reports from choir insiders say that his audition with the choir was excellent. In my opinion, he is an impressive and well-rounded musician and I cannot wait to see what he does with the choir.

Ryan Murphy’s appointment fills me with hope that this decade-long renaissance that the choir has been experiencing will segue into an equally impressive golden age in the coming years. Welcome, Brother Murphy, and good luck!