Temple Square: The Geographical and Musical Heart of Salt Lake
Utah is most often associated with two things: Mountains and Mormons.
There’s no denying the presence and cultural influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) in the Beehive State. It was Church of Jesus Christ pioneers, after all, that traversed the frontier and made the Salt Lake Valley their home in 1847. But while Salt Lake City was once recognized as a Church of Jesus Christ stronghold, the state’s capital has taken on a new cultural form in recent years.
Locals often juxtapose the city against the broader Church of Jesus Christ culture, referring to it as “a liberal bubble within a conservative state.” Though these two facets have distinguishing characteristics, they also interact and influence one another in interesting ways.
Story at a glance
- There’s a relationship between the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) culture and SLC’s music scene. The church's spirit of community and inclusivity is reflected in the city’s largely secular music community.
- The Tabernacle is an “architectural wonder” with renowned acoustics that is revered among the choral music community.
- Free rehearsals and concerts are available to the public throughout the week.
- The Choir extends its activities and performances to include a wide range of musical artists and other music organizations.
I’ve studied this interaction through the lens of Salt Lake City’s music scene. Active participants in the local music community will agree on a defining attribute: a strong sense of community and support among the diverse local musicians, venues and concert-goers.
But why? What is at the root of this tight-knit music community?
A recent conversation with the president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square led me closer to what I believe to be at least part of the answer.
I met choir president, Ron Jarrett, on his turf at Temple Square — the literal and figurative heart of Salt Lake City, whose cluster of modest skyscrapers rise in neat rows along the all-encompassing “grid” of the city.
Restaurants, shopping, professional performing arts, nightlife and bars spiral out from downtown’s spiritual core, creating a big-city juxtaposition of culture and place. It’s late September, and the bright colors of fall-tinged flora pop against the grounds’ granite, gothic architecture. Our conversation takes place in his office within the Tabernacle, a dome-shaped auditorium that houses what President Ronald Reagan dubbed “America’s Choir.”
Jarrett, a former member of the choir and elementary school principal, is warm and soft-spoken. He refers to the Tabernacle as “an architectural wonder” with acoustics so sensitive you could hear a pin drop from the pulpit to the back of the hall over 170 feet away. Dedicated students of choral music pilgrimage here at least once during their life for the unique sonic experience.
Look closely around the Tabernacle and you can spot a peculiar woodwork technique that finds its roots in early pioneer culture. The oak woodwork and furniture are, in fact, not oak, but pine. Pioneers’ desire for refinement but lack of necessary materials resulted in a resourceful solution — a technique called “graining.” This process allowed pioneers to imitate not just hardwood, but marble and even leather (Dant). That yearning for refinement carried over into Church of Jesus Christ music culture, as well — no imitation needed.
The choir, directed by Mack Wilberg, makes it a point to make guests feel welcome. “We try to make it open and friendly. We talk to them. We welcome them,” Jarrett says.
In addition to their solo performances, The Tabernacle Choir often works with other music organizations and artists. One of their regular partners — the Utah Symphony — helped co-host a concert series not too long ago that included five-time Grammy Award-winning musician James Taylor. Other notable music guests include opera singer Renee Fleming and local pop star David Archuleta, among many others.
They also sponsor and host organizations for annual music events, including the American Guild of Organists and the nonprofit, music education group Millennial Choirs & Orchestras, to name a couple. “All in an effort to bring different cultures, different music, [and] different experiences to our city,” Jarrett adds.
I ask Mr. Jarrett why music is such a big part of the Church of Jesus Christ faith. He replies, “Well music … itself is a great vehicle for communication. Music speaks to people and they understand it; they can relate to it. And so we believe that the music touches people’s hearts and makes a difference for them..” It’s a sentiment that echoes the church’s second leader, Brigham Young, who characterized music as a “magic power” that could “fill the air with harmony, and cheer and comfort the hearts of men…” (Hicks).
This is a faith and a city that love music.
At a time in United States history where Christian faiths were divided in their views on the role of music, the Church’s founder Joseph Smith likened choral worship music to prayer and took steps to create a singing department in 1830 (Hicks).
One month after the Church of Jesus Christ pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley, the community formed The Tabernacle Choir and a seed was planted; a seed that would soon blossom into Brigham Young’s proverbial “desert rose.”
European converts later immigrated to Utah and brought with them their music sensibilities along with their wind, brass, and string instruments. Soon after, instrumental music accompanied the vocal-centered music culture of the early Latter-day Saints. This music culture and refinement was unparalleled across the early western frontier.
The Church of Jesus Christ has a long history of music-inclusivity. Jarrett says, “There’s [always] been a culture of music present.” As other faiths began entering into the valley after the initial settlement, they found that their music was accepted and appreciated by the Saints. An ethic of sharing music grew among the various faiths, with The Tabernacle Choir often drawing from other Christian faiths’ musical repertoires.
Brigham Young University music professor Michael Hicks writes, “Above all, the sheer abundance of music in the Church reveals how untiring are the aesthetic impulses of its members. Whether or not a distinctively Latter-day Saint style emerges, music of many styles will undoubtedly continue to inspire the Saints.”
Redirecting our conversation back to the Choir, I ask Jarrett about the relationships formed among the performers of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. He tells me about the solidarity and goodwill among the group. The taxing nature of auditioning for the choir and subsequent high number of commitments that follow afterward can put a strain on its members. Not to mention they are all volunteers, and unpaid. They often rely on each other for support, coordinating resources where needed — acting as a collective. A village mentality is present, not unlike that found in the broader Latter-day Saint community.
It was then that I realized an obvious oversight on my part. Cultures aren’t fixed and static, but fluid and dynamic. When one borders another, they interact, influence and co-mingle. The distinct sense of acceptance, encouragement and support I see weaved through Salt Lake City’s music scene mirrors those same attributes that are part and parcel of the Latter-day Saint community, musical and otherwise. This choir — and the larger culture — established a communal musical tone in the 1800s that influences the tight and supportive musical community that pervades Salt Lake City — and the broader Wasatch Front — two centuries later.
Jarrett boils the purpose of the Choir down to its simplest component: “It is the joy that can be found in making or listening to great music. That’s what it’s all about.” An attitude that’s as pervasive as the spirit of community found in the Salt Lake Valley.
Follow an Itinerary
When You Go
Sit in on live rehearsals of the vocal choir every Thursday night from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., as well as the bell choir on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.
Want to see a performance on “one of the most perfect organs ever built”? Thirty-minute organ recitals are given daily at noon Monday–Saturday, and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Check the Choir's website for an ongoing event calendar.
Across the street, the City Creek Center encompasses two entire city blocks. This retail centerpiece featuring more than 90 stores as well as restaurants and a bakery, City Creek has a stunning outdoor design with a retractable ceiling for inclement weather, spectacular fountains and a naturalized creek that runs through the galleria.