In January, the Mormons contacted me.
I got a very nice e-mail from a publicist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, wondering if I would be willing to review their latest CD called “Glory! Music of Rejoicing.” She offered to send me a couple of copies free. Naturally, visions of a new side career as a CD reviewer, with TONS of free music, danced in my head, and I said yes. Sure, I was busy, but I could find time to review one CD in a timely manner, right?
Apparently not. The publicist kindly told me to take my time, and I’m embarrassed that I did – three months after getting the CD in the mail, I am just now reviewing it. Which makes it even more painful to admit that I cannot really recommend purchasing this CD.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is one of the most famous choirs in the nation, and for technical quality they really could not possibly be better. So there is little point in spending a lot of time addressing their tuning, their tone, their blend, their rhythm, the tightness of their tempos – all are flawless. The diction occasionally leaves a little something to be desired, but in a choir of 360 voices, this might be an unavoidable challenge. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has an excellent reputation for a reason – they are absolutely musically dependable.
Too bad, then, that they have not turned their prodigious talents towards more worthy repertoire. The album is designed to be a collection of music that all rejoices, and it intersperses a few classic pieces with a lot of hymn arrangements. Most of those arrangements, I’m sorry to say, are cheesy and not very fulfilling. From the very first piece, a hymn arrangement by music director Mack Wilberg, we are treated to a smorgasbord of stereotypes. Predictable harmonies, pretty and utterly forgettable melodies, shimmering strings with harp scales and flute solos in thirds and pop-sounding piano accompaniments, the chorus going “oo” in the background, and too many major seconds everywhere. (Major seconds are the corn syrup of today’s choral music. They are in EVERYTHING, and they add excess sugar to the diet. Composers take note; they are not dissonant or edgy anymore. Find some other way to tug the heartstrings.) Even the composers, such as Bernstein, that one would expect would deliver something less saccharine are drowned in the context of all the excessive prettiness.
There is a respite in the middle. I perked up my ears at the Rimsky-Korsakov anthem “Glory!” which is quite thrilling (and I cannot imagine why it is not at the end or beginning of the CD.) It was followed by an arrangement of Psalm 148 by Holst, also excellent and moving with a blessedly simple a cappella introduction and some really lovely harmonic shifts that kept the music fresh and exciting. And after that came the Cum Sancto Spiritu from Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle, which was light and great and frankly made me wish the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would do nothing but sing fugues. They were well-balanced and nimble and everything one wishes for in a fugue. Why don’t they tackle Mendelssohn’s Elijah or Mozart’s Mass in C?
Alas, then we were back to more sweet and easily-digested fare with a pretty Gounod Benedictus, and from there to the end of the CD, nothing caught my attention. (That is, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is always a good time, although this rendition was overly shouty, but it would have been more satisfying at the end of a heartier meal. One doesn’t eat ten courses of Tootsie Rolls and then finish up with a final dessert course of steak and potatoes.)
Flipping through the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s website reveals a vast array of CDs, most of them compilations. There is no Bach B Minor Mass. As far as I can tell, there is nothing by Mendelssohn. No Mozart, Fauré, Duruflé, or Verdi requiems. There are some Brahms Requiems from various years, and some other interesting looking albums (a tribute to Randall Thompson for one) but on the whole, they seem to have devoted their significant power and talents to easy-listening choral music.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a religious ensemble, and they seem to concentrate a lot on hymn-settings; I assume they wish to inspire their constituents to greater faith and inspiration. I am sorry that they themselves lack the faith in their listeners to give them something other than repertoire designed to please the lowest common denominator. I challenge them to give us something that might risk disturbing us, so that we might then gain the possible reward of being profoundly moved.