BWW Feature: HAMILTON's Christopher Jackson at Mormon Tabernacle Choir
With its guests soloists, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has sung everything from Broadway ballads to African-American spirituals, and from the Great American Songbook and opera to Swedish folk music.
"I think you might be disappointed if you're looking for rap," says the choir's music director, Mac Wilberg, with a hearty laugh. "There are probably limits on what the choir can sing well."
Previous soloists have included many Broadway luminaries, such as Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Osnes, Santino Fontana, Linda Eder, and Alfie Boe. This is a tradition that began when Angela Lansbury performed with the choir in 2001. But the wide-ranging list of guests includes Natalie Cole, the "Sesame Street" Muppets, Sissel, and the King's Singers, along with stars from the opera stage, including Renee Fleming, Nathan Gunn, Frederica von Stade, and Bryn Terfel. And those not entirely familiar with all of previous artists would be surprised to learn that James Taylor and Sting have collaborated with the choir.
"Everyone that we have brings something unique to our concerts," Wilberg explains. "In Christopher's case, he is very diversified in what he does. And some of that diversity will be evident."
Will a song Jackson introduced in his Tony-nominated role as George Washington in HAMILTON or Benny in IN THE HEIGHTS be included in the Pioneer Day Concerts July 14-15 in the church's 21,000-seat Salt Lake City Conference Center, or perhaps "Where You Are" from his singing role as Chief Tui in the Disney film "Moana"?
Wilberg is tight-lipped. "You have to come to the concert and see," he responds. "Part of what we plan is the element of surprise that audiences seem to enjoy very much."
The conductor is equally secretive of future artists or even invitations he would consider dream soloists, although he does acknowledge that Barbara Cook before her recent retirement would have been an excellent selection for Wilberg and the choir to collaborate with.
"We are always looking for opportunities for guests of Christopher Jackson's status to join us."
It is the collaboration with the soloists that makes singing with the massive 360-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir tremendously unique. Wilberg plans months ahead of the concerts to tailor each performance to the individual background and musical specialty of the guests.
"The guests bring great diversity to the choir," he says. "The choir tries to perform for everyone. It enables us to be very diversified with our audiences," adding, "All of our guests have been terrific in their individual ways. Each has brought something unique to what they do. Every guest artist has been truly collaborative, and I've always appreciated that. Collaboration is an important part of the process, and ego is never a part of it.
"What these artists and the choir bring to these performances is unique, and each of the soloists have said something along the lines of 'I've performed on Broadway and in other large concert halls and with large orchestras, but nothing is quite like singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the (110-member ) Orchestra at Temple Square.' It's a wholly unique experience for them," Wilberg says.
However, savvy concertgoers know that a hint of the repertoire for each concert can be gleaned by attending choir rehearsals which are open to the public.
While publicly best most known for his conductor role, Wilberg is also internationally recognized for his choral compositions and arrangements and publishes exclusively with Oxford University Press. According to his biography on the publisher's website: "Wilberg's arrangements and compositions, with their grandeur, energy, and charm, inspire performers and audiences everywhere."
In a Salt Lake Tribune interview, Oxford's U.S. music editor called Wilberg "one of our most important composers.
"It's not just churches with Utah and Mormon affiliations buying his music," he said. "It's all over the country. It's amazing how quickly this has gone from something regional to something national."
Along with relationships he establishes with internationally known artists, choir members cherish the opportunity to sing with the all-volunteer choir. One choir member called working with Wilberg as "so beautiful, so elegant, so thrilling. It is as if he has bottled my Savior's love, condensed it into the sweetest nectar, and I get to drink it."
Wilberg also oversees all musical and creative aspects of the choir, the Orchestra at Temple Square, the Temple Square Chorale, and the Bells on Temple Square, including selecting repertoire for concerts, recordings and tours, and providing the creative direction for the choir's weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcasts.
It's no surprise that Jackson would align himself with a deeply religious organization. Before each HAMILTON performance, he lead a prayer with fellow cast members. "We circle up for a moment of quiet and connection," he has said. "We hold hands and pray that the intent of our work reaches its target."
Jackson was made his Broadway debut in the original production of THE LION KING and was case, he has said, "an hour before the first rehearsal," according to a Vanity Fair magazine interview. "The job came so last minute, in fact, that he kept working his restaurant job for two more weeks 'just so I wouldn't leave [my boss] hanging.'" (Watch a Vanity Fair profile at http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2016/04/christopher-jackson-hamilton-interview.)
"Chris is so sure of his instrument and has this kind of moral authority onstage," composer Miranda wrote in "Hamilton: The Revolution," the story of the musical's creation. "He's just ... majestic."
Jackson is a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning songwriter/composer. His additional Broadway-performance credits include THE BRONX BOMBERS, MEMPHIS and HOLLER IF YOU CAN HEAR ME. Along with creating the role of Perry Loftus in the HBO series "Oz," he is currently starring in the CBS drama "Bull" and has been a composer/songwriter for "Sesame Street" (six Emmy nominations and one win) and co-music supervisor and writer for "The Electric Company."
Jackson and his wife, Veronica Vazquez-Jackson, are advocates for the organization Autism Speaks; they have one son and one daughter.
The concert will not be the only Utah production featuring a HAMILTON cast member that weekend. Leslie Odom Jr., Tony winner for his role as Aaron Burr, will sing with the Utah Symphony at Deer Valley on the second night of Jackson's Tabernacle Choir performances.
"Music for a Summer Evening," the choir's annual concert held in conjunction with the Pioneer Day Utah state holiday will be live-streamed on MormonTabernacleChoir.org at 8 p.m. MDT on July 15.