My mother sang alto in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for over a decade, so when Christmas rolls around, the Choir’s Christmas CDs are in heavy rotation in the car and at home.
As I was driving home tonight, their 2004 recording of Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of “Away in a Manager” came on and I had to pull over for a bit. I’ve had the pleasure of singing that arrangement with a number of excellent choirs, and every time I do I have to watch out because the third verse will knock the wind out of me if I’m not careful.
I assert (and my friend, Brent, will back me up on this) that Mack Wilberg is one of the most brilliant arrangers in the world, and I give you this recording, with the 360-member Choir and the 110-piece Orchestra at Temple Square, as Exhibit A.
The first verse is sung in unison by the women; the second verse by the men. It’s all very simple and straightforward up to that point, with the beautiful, flowing orchestration providing the only real points of interest.
And that’s where we pick things up…
As the sopranos, altos and tenors come in on the third verse, the orchestra drops away, leaving the voices suspended in mid-air…and the next eight measures are probably the closest thing to perfection that I’ll ever be a part of in this life.
For tenors, life doesn’t get much better than this. You just hang there at the top of your register singing the most interesting note in each of these intricate, unexpected chords. And when you drop into “…and love me, I pray,” it’s like coming home.
For me, those eight measures…those eight beautiful, delicate, haunting measures…full of longing, hope, and joy…are what Christmas is all about.