Music • Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Welsh singer reconnect to honor the pioneer past.
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In 1849, some Welsh Mormon pioneers had safely made it to Salt Lake City, bringing with them a reputation for beguiling and entertaining their fellow handcart-transporting travelers with songs from their homeland.
Upon hearing the great music the Welsh pioneers had brought with them, Mormon prophet Brigham Young asked the leader, John Parry, a minister and musician from Newmarket in North Wales, where he had learned the songs.
Parry reportedly replied, "The hills of Wales were the schoolhouse, and the Spirit of God was the teacher."
Young had Parry organize his fellow Welsh singers, and they formed the nucleus of what would soon afterward become known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The choir's deep Welsh roots are being celebrated again in the wake of the September release of "Homeward Bound," a collection of 18 songs performed by the choir with Welsh opera icon Bryn Terfel on lead vocals, recorded not on the choir's own record label, but internationally acclaimed, Berlin-based classical label Deutsche Grammophon.
For Terfel, the project was a passion.
"I was brought up in the arms of my parents and grandparents," he said. "The Welsh have a voice, and it is singing."
And when it came time to record the album, he thought of no better accompaniment than from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square, led by Mack Wilberg.
"I can see it in their eyes," Terfel said of their connection to Wales.
The connection is indeed strong. Wilberg said at least half the current 360 volunteers singing in the choir can trace their roots to Wales.
"They've always been known for their singing," Wilberg said.
The ties between Terfel and the choir run deep, too. In 2003, he was asked to sing during the choir's annual Christmas extravaganza.
"The invitation caused me slight hesitation," Terfel recalled. "Why should I go to Salt Lake City 10 days before Christmas? I didn't know what to expect."
All of his concerns vanished when he came to the Beehive State. During the course of a dress rehearsal and three performances over one weekend, he performed before more than 100,000 people who counted the choir's Christmas concerts as highlights of the year. He was inspired to see all of the Welsh faces not only in the crowd, but also in the choir.
So Terfel rapidly accepted Wilberg's invitation in 2007 to help inaugurate the then-newly renovated Salt Lake Tabernacle with performances of Mendelssohn's "Elijah."
Further cementing his connection with the choir was that Wilberg, a noted composer and arranger as well as the choir's music director, penned arrangements for Terfel's Grammy-winning 2005 "Simple Gifts" album in addition to arrangements for the 2010 album "Carols and Christmas Songs." Not least, Terfel recorded the baritone solos for Wilberg's own Requiem in 2008.
"As a musician, I can't say enough about him," Wilberg said. "His voice is God-given. His phrasing and diction he is able to make it seem as if he is singing to one person."
Wilberg added that Terfel's character also makes him an ideal fit with the choir. "Personally, it would be hard to find a warmer person of his caliber."
Terfel's career has ascended through the years after being born the son of a North Wales farmer, not far from where Parry grew up. In 1990, he made his operatic debut as Guglielmo in "Così fan tutte" at the Welsh National Opera, and the next year he made his international operatic debut when he was the Speaker in Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte" at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels.
Terfel gained reknown with the roles of Figaro and Don Giovanni, but in recent years he has tackled successfully some of the heaviest, most demanding roles in all of opera. He took on the prestigious role of Wotan (the West Germanic god corresponding to Norse Odin) in the premiere of Robert Lepage's new Metropolitan staging of Wagner's Ring cycle between 2010 and 2012, singing the role in all three of the four Ring operas that feature Wotan. The Met's Ring cycle was one of the most important and celebrated experiences in opera in decades, and Terfel was universally acclaimed. Because of that feat, Deutsche Grammophon essentially gave him carte blanche to undertake any project he desired.
Among other things, Terfel is proud to be Welsh and lives with his three children in Bontnewydd, a small village in North Wales. In fact, he ended up studying music in London after receiving a reply from a Welsh music college addressed to "Miss Terfel." He recounted that he was so offended that a Welsh institution didn't realize that Bryn was a traditional Welsh male name that he rebuffed the offers of admission.
Fast-forward to 2012, when he began preparing to record a collection of songs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. After myriad Skype sessions and what Terfel remembers as "thousands" of emails with Wilberg, the song list was finalized.
The songs consist of American folk hymns, sea shanties, African-American spirituals, English and Welsh folk hymns, original songs and even a tune written by former ABBA songwriter Benny Andersson. Taken together, the songs reflect the themes of faith and finding a homeland while recalling fondly homelands that pioneers had left behind in search of better lives.
When Terfel traveled to Salt Lake City this spring to record the album at the Tabernacle, he acknowledged that he was in the midst of personal turmoil. He had been going through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart.
"I've had a pretty tough year," he said. "I question myself spiritually."
But he said the attitude of the choir and Wilberg buoyed his spirits. "They are good people doing good things, on top of the sugar levels," he joked. "I needed that."
The album reached No. 58 on the all-genres chart in the United Kingdom, an astonishing position considering the U.K.'s reputation for being a secular, pop-obsessed country.
Even now, Terfel reflects on what he calls his good fortune of having recorded songs important to him with people who are important to him people descended from Parry and his fellow singers who have made the Welsh internationally famous for their songs.
"It's not me having them," he said of having performed with the choir. "The pleasure and honor is all mine."
"Homeward Bound," by Bryn Terfel and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was released Sept. 10 on Deutsche Grammophon.
1. • "What a Wonderful World"
2. • "Homeward Bound"
3. • "Bound for the Promised Land"
4. • "Faith's Call"
5. • "Shall We Gather at the River"
6. • "How Great Thou Art"
7. • "Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah"
8. • "Blow the Wind Southerly"
9. • "Shenandoah"
10. • "Ave verum Corpus"
11. • "The Dying Soldier"
12. • "Battle Hymn of the Republic"
13. • "Deep River"
14. • "When the Saints Go Marching In"
15. • "Home on the Range"
16. • "Libera me"
17. • "Lascia ch'io pianga"
18. • "Give Me My Song"