Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Change in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir - UPDATED

(Hat Tip: MomZee, who stays tuned to these items better than I do.)

Bro. Craig Jessop has resigned from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This news comes as a shock to all of us who have appreciated his contributions to the choir over the years. I especially have appreciated his ability to coax ever-increasing musical proficiency from such a large group of singers. Many of us struggle to pull good sound out of a 20 voice choir; Jessop has done so with 360 voices.

Beyond that, Bro. Jessop is a genuinely nice person. I've only met him once, when I was privileged last fall to sing under his baton during our Interfaith Council concert here in Orange County. Although he was able to martial a group of 10 or so different church choirs using his well-honed rehearsal skills, he also exuded the kind of peaceful testimony of the gospel to which we all aspire.

Craig Jessop is the fourth director of the Tab Choir to serve during my lifetime. I was born and raised during the "reign" of Richard P. Condie. Under Condie, the Choir grew in both size and reputation, becoming a particular favorite of Eugene Ormandy of the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra. Several of my favorite MTC recordings hail from this period, including one of my absolute favorite Christmas recordings.

[Update: Reader "aloysiusmiller" reminds me that Bro. Jay Welch served for a brief time following Bro. Condie. Apparently he didn't make any impression on me — the name is only vaguely familiar to me — but I certainly don't want to slight his memory. Thanks, aloysius!]

In 1974 the baton passed to Jerold Ottley. Under Bro. Ottley the Choir (sometimes affectionately called "Jerry O and the MoTabs") began a significant improvement in both technique and degree of musical difficulty. This was also the same period where I began my own musical "career" in earnest in high school. During a family vacation that year, we were able to attend one of their public rehearsals. I was both thrilled and fascinated by the dynamics of working with such a large group of people. I was impressed that Bro. Ottley had to use a microphone to conduct the rehearsal, and that the Choir had such a professional rehearsal work ethic. Not a sound was heard between run-throughs, and everyone listened intently to Bro. Ottley's direction and teaching. Dad always remembered my critiques of the music they were rehearsing and was impressed that I had learned as much as I had by that time.

When Bro. Jessop was announced as Bro. Ottley's replacement I was, at first, unsure what to think. I had seen Bro. Jessop conduct when he served as Assistant Director during a few sessions of General Conference, and I always found his baton technique to be too physical. I'd never seen a conductor move like he does. It's completely unique in my experience, and I confess it took some getting used to. However, I don't believe anyone can argue with his success as the Choir's director for the past decade. The sound they produce today is nearly flawless, especially compared with recordings from their past. Under the combined talents of Jessop and Mack Wilberg the Choir has continued to impress me musically, and inspire me spiritually.

Fortunately, the Choir is not left entirely bereft. Bro. Wilberg will serve as interim director until the First Presidency can appoint a full-time replacement. Bro. Wilberg may not be quite as dynamic a front-man as Bro. Jessop, but there's no arguing with his musical bona fides. He is every bit the master of this element as is Bro. Jessop, and I have little doubt that he would make an equally wonderful full-time director for the Choir. It will, of course, be fascinating to see just who the Lord chooses to fill this position. It always is.

As a more or less life-long musical servant in the Kingdom myself, I appreciate what Bro. Jessop has done for the Choir, and I wish him every success in whatever endeavors he pursues. He will remain one of my musical and personal inspirations in life. May I aspire to serve as Bro. Jessop has served; faithfully and with complete dedication to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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