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Mormon Tabernacle Choir, 320 strong, set for Ravinia stage

The MormTabernacle Choir | GEORGE FREY ~ GETTY IMAGES

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir | GEORGE FREY ~ GETTY IMAGES

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♦ 8 p.m. June 15

♦ Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay Road, Highland Park

♦ Tickets, $17-$95

♦(847) 266-5100;

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Updated: June 17, 2013 10:25AM

There are concert tours, and then there are concert tours.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir would fall under the latter. With 320 choir members and 65 members of the Orchestra at Temple Square (not to mention music stands, instruments, choir robes and all sorts of other show necessities), the logistics of the tour are nothing short of a miracle of precision and planning. Then there are the 11 buses that ferry the choir. And then there’s having to reserve an entire hotel of rooms (depending on the size of the hotel) in most cities. And don’t forget meals, three times a day, for nearly 400 people.

Dr. Mack Wilberg, the director of the iconic Grammy-winning choir, who also conducts the orchestra, will tell you the monumental undertaking is something the all-volunteer troupe and behind-the-scenes teams have mastered.

“We try to take everyone in the choir on the road, but we only take about 320 members [out of nearly 360] because for various reasons some of them cannot go on the tours, which take place every other year,” Wilberg said. “Because we have to rent out entire hotels, all these plans are made two years in advance. We worry more about feeding everyone and transporting them. It runs very smoothly because everything is planned down to the minute.”

For those who’ve experienced the choir and orchestra via television or recordings, Wilberg says the live performances are unparalleled. Weekly rehearsals are no small feat, either, and have become a popular event for Salt Lake City residents and tourists, who want to sit in on the process every Thursday night. “People stand in line to get in,” Wilberg said.

Ravinia Festival goers won’t have to stand in line (lawn/pavilion seating are still available) to and hear the choir/orchestra on June 15, when the company returns to the venue (they performed there in 2007) for a concert. Several rows of pavilion seating have been removed to allow for the extra stage space needed to accommodate the production.

Wilberg talked to the Sun-Times about the iconic choir.

Q.Do you recall the first time you heard the choir perform?

A. I grew up in a very small remote town in central eastern Utah, about three hours away from Salt Lake City. I was about 10. My grandmother took me to a Thursday night rehearsal. I just remember hearing this wall of sound and it was overwhelming. I still remember the piece they were rehearsing. It was “The Holy City,” [which is] an old war horse nowadays. [Laughing] It’s not part of our repertoire but we do it every once in a while.

Q.What is the core of the choir’s repertoire?

A. One of our mandates from our church leaders is to “sing for the people.” That means for everyone. Our repertoire is very diverse. The tour program reflects that. Probably the most request we get are for hymns. Another very important part is music of the master composers. We we’ll be doing Dvorak, Rossini. Folk music is also a part of what we do because the choir began singing in the early part of the 20th century. Also religious popular music... anything from inspirational to Broadway to inspirational film music. Also, the choir has always been known for singing patriotic music. So we’ll be ending with our signature piece, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Q.Tell me about the vocal composition of the choir (members are between the ages of 25 and 55)? A. We’re well-balanced: divide 360 by 4; each section may have a few more or less. Interestingly [at recent auditions] we needed more first sopranos. It’s always hard to find the extremes, such as low, low bases or high, high sopranos and high, high tenors. Most [singers] fall in the medium range. And it’s never a problem finding altos or baritones.

Q.I’ve read that the audition process is a demanding 3-stage process, and that music skills aptitude is required for everyone. Can you elaborate?

A. [Everyone] must read music very well. We perform between 300 and 400 pieces on two-and-a-half hours of rehearsal a week so we have to have people who can look at music and reproduce what they see on the page very quickly.

Q. How elevated is a position in the choir/orchestra in the eyes of your church?

A. Everyone who is accepted into the choir and orchestra, it becomes what we term a calling. It becomes part of their ecclesiastical responsibility. Every leadership position in LDS church is done by a lay person on a voluntary basis; everybody has other jobs outside the church. So for the choir and [orchestra] this becomes their major assignment and calling. To be a member of either is a great honor.

Q.What’s the message in your music?

A. We want it to be an inspiration for all people. That’s the purpose of music. That’s part of our mandate “to sing for people.” You have to lift people on a certain level... It’s not a form of preaching.

Q. “The Book of Mormon” is playing in Chicago. Will you be seeing it, or have you seen it?

A. I have not seen it. All I know is what other people know [about the show]. I will not be seeing it.

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