Mack Wilberg has a job that many chorus directors might envy. He’s the director of the 360-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“It’s a great wall of sound,” Wilberg said from Utah before setting out on the choir’s Northeast Coast tour, which brings them to Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Monday.
The tour, which includes stops in Bethel Woods, Carnegie Hall, Yankee Stadium and Boston, is the first the choir has made to the area since 2003. Wilberg is bringing only 320 of the singers in addition to 68 of the 110 musicians of the Orchestra of Temple Square, along with family members and friends.
“There will be about 500 people,” he said. “It’s taken two years of planning in advance with all the hotels and charter flights. Then we travel by bus on the East Coast.”
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
HOW MUCH: $80-$35; $26 (lawn)
MORE INFO: 584-9330; www.spac.org
Tours every two years are only part of what the chorus and orchestra do. There are twice weekly rehearsals for the 30-minute weekly Sunday broadcasts, recording sessions, frequent concerts, and special events, such as when the choir performed more than 20 times during the 2002 Winter Olympics. The chorus has sung for 10 U.S. presidents.
All this is done by people who are volunteering their time. To be a member, everyone must belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the choir’s website, music has always been part of church services. So when the church moved west to the Salt Lake Valley, a small choir was formed in 1847.
Over the years it has grown and achieved much success: It has more than 200 recordings, of which many have gone platinum or gold; won a 1959 Grammy Award; a 1987 Emmy Award for a Christmas special; was voted into the Radio Hall of Fame and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame for its Sunday broadcasts; appeared at 13 World Fairs; and toured to most continents.
“It’s a big challenge to ensure that we all sing together,” Wilberg said. “And it’s a challenge to choosing the repertoire. We must appeal to a large variety of people so that there is something for everyone.”
For each venue on this tour, the programs will be different. At SPAC, music will include works by Gounod, Rossini, Rimsky-Korsakov, American folk music and songs by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Meredith Willson.
“The chorus rehearses a lot of stuff and will sing it all from memory,” Wilberg said, adding that expectations are high. “There’s a lot to learn, but they’re quite remarkable and can rise to the occasion.”
Although 24 of his singers are professionally trained, including several choral directors, there is a stringent, almost nine-month, three-step audition process. This includes an application with a vocal recording and a recommendation from the singer’s bishop; they must live within 100 miles of Salt Lake City and be between 25 and 55 years of age; pass a music test and personal audition; and sing with the Temple Square Chorale, the training arm of the choir, for up to four months.
If they get through all that, they’re invited to become part of the choir and can stay up to 20 years or to age 60.
While many in the orchestra work professionally with other ensembles, 90 percent of the singers don’t.
“It’s a demanding schedule and it’s hard to be part of anything else,” Wilberg said. “For some it’s a labor of love.”