Since Bryn Terfel’s home has always been in North Wales, it may seem strange that he travelled to the Rocky Mountains in the American West to make an album called Homeward Bound. But Terfel has found a true sense of belonging in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is based. The 360-voice ensemble provides the rich and evocative backdrops for Terfel’s ringing bass-baritone on this new set of recordings, which spans material ranging from British and American folk and popular songs to hymns, spirituals and classical pieces.
Terfel previously sang with the Choir in 2003, when he appeared in one of its annual Christmas concerts, and again in 2007, in concerts marking the reopening of the renovated Mormon Tabernacle. He has also collaborated several times with the Choir’s music director, Mack Wilberg, who wrote arrangements for Terfel’s albums Simple Gifts and Carols & Christmas Songs. But there’s a deeper, cultural connection between these musicians, stretching back to the Choir’s foundation in the mid-19th century.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir traces its roots to the early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who settled in the Salt Lake valley in 1847, and it found its firm footing with the addition of a large number of Welsh immigrants who crossed the Atlantic to join other Mormons migrating westwards across America. When they reached the settlement that would grow into Salt Lake City, they were asked by Mormon leader Brigham Young to become the nucleus of a great choir. That was in 1849, and in the intervening 164 years the ensemble has grown into an iconic institution that tours internationally, has performed at the inaugurations of six United States presidents, and has released over 200 recordings. It has been the recipient of five Gold and two Platinum Records and a Grammy® Award in 1959. Since 1929, it has been broadcasting a weekly radio programme, Music and The Spoken Word, which now airs internationally on over 2,000 radio, TV, cable and satellite stations and is carried on the Choir’s own YouTube channel. It is accompanied by the Orchestra at Temple Square, which like the Choir, is comprised entirely of volunteer musicians.
Terfel built his towering international reputation by singing key roles by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, and in recent years has distinguished himself as one of the great Wagnerian singers of the age. He’s also that rare phenomenon: a thoroughbred classical singer who can comfortably tackle songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein or music-theatre roles such as the lead in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Nevertheless, he felt that his trip to the Rocky Mountains to make Homeward Bound was another new departure. It gave him, he has said, “an incredible feeling of adventure, because this is something new,” as well as the sense of “an acceptance by a group of people who are incredibly loving, accepting and supporting”. The spiritual bond of shared Welsh heritage has much to do with it, and it’s a remarkable fact that no fewer than 213 members of the Choir have Welsh ancestors.
Some of America’s most definitive pieces have found a home on Homeward Bound. The traditional song “Shenandoah” has a long association with American seafarers, going back to the 19th century. Elements of big-band swing and Dixieland light up “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”, which is sung and played with an irresistible New Orleans-style swagger by Terfel, the Choir and the accompanying Orchestra at Temple Square. Terfel’s treatment of “What a Wonderful World” is a heartfelt affirmation of the elemental values that make life worth living. Then there’s “Home on the Range”, that ode to the Old West that Terfel considered an obligatory choice because, as he says, “you do have buffaloes roaming near the Salt Lake”.
The album’s sacred dimension is a vital part of its musical architecture, whether it’s expressed through the African American spiritual “Deep River” or the 19th-century hymn “How Great Thou Art”. Bryn teams up with mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, with whom he has previously sung Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’s touching “Ave verum corpus,” offering a modern classical counterpart to the imploring “Libera me” from Gabriel Fauré’s famous Requiem. Elsewhere on the album, Bryn joins with ethereal Norwegian soprano Sissel on the American folk song, “Shall We Gather at the River”, and also on fellow Scandinavian Benny Andersson’s “Give Me My Song”.
One song that absolutely demanded inclusion was “Cwm Rhondda”, the rousing hymn — known to many non-Welsh-speakers as “Bread of Heaven” — that has become a kind of unofficial Welsh theme tune. Sung here under the title more familiar to Americans, “Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah”, with a mixture of Welsh and English lyrics, its narrative of a “pilgrim through this barren land” guided by the “Great Redeemer” suggests something of the historic pioneer journey from Wales to the Rocky Mountains.
That epic trek is the specific subject of “Faith’s Call”, perhaps the most striking inclusion on the disc because it was specially commissioned for the project from young Welsh composer Paul Mealor. He was rocketed into the international spotlight in 2011, when his piece “Ubi caritas” was performed at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. This new composition wrings a powerful surge of emotion from the voices of choir and soloist counterpointed against a haunting trumpet theme, and that instrument winds the piece to a close with an echo of the Welsh national anthem, “Land of My Fathers”. The lyrics speak of a divine voice calling the singer from afar, urging him to leave “my homeland far away” and build God’s house on distant “Zion’s shore” — as the Welsh settlers did when they went to Utah.
Terfel approached the recordings with the aim of celebrating home, history and heritage, and Homeward Bound does all of this and more, radiating faith (both religious and otherwise) and a spirit of timelessness.
LIST OF TRACKS:
1. WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
2. HOMEWARD BOUND
3. BOUND FOR THE PROMISED LAND
4. FAITH’S CALL (ENGLISH)
5. SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER
6. HOW GREAT THOU ART
7. GUIDE US, O THOU GREAT JEHOVAH
8. BLOW THE WIND SOUTHERLY
10. AVE VERUM
11. THE DYING SOLDIER
12. BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC
13. DEEP RIVER
14. WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHIN’ IN
15. HOME ON THE RANGE
16. LASCHIA CH’IO PIANGA
17. LIBERA ME
Bryn Terfel talks to Classic FM about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
There's a Welsh flavour behind the bass-baritone's new album with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, tackling a huge repertoire from classical hymns to jazz and opera. And that historic Welsh connection with the Choir certainly helped things along.