In many ways, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is like any other church choir. It's an all-volunteer organization that rehearses and performs each Sunday morning.
But in many other ways, the choir stands apart from the musical herd. It's one of the biggest — 360 members — and one of the oldest — first public performance given in 1847 — choirs in the country. The choir's weekly live broadcast, "Music and the Spoken Word," has run continuously since 1929 and is the nation's longest-running network program. Its superlative sound and sheer volume will fill Norfolk Scope on Monday, June 20, when the choir visits Hampton Roads for the first time.
Every other year, the choir tours a section of North America. Norfolk will be the first stop on a weeklong, five-city "whistle-stop" of eastern cities in the U.S and Canada. After its Hampton Roads performance, the choir will stop at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Northern Virginia, Philadelphia and the Chautauqua, New York, summer music festival. The tour will conclude with two performances in Toronto.
Their Norfolk performance is sponsored by the Virginia Arts Festival, which extended the run of this year's festival to include the choir as part of its lineup. The group has booked the entire Norfolk Waterside Marriott for its stay.
The coming week's tour will include about 600 people, says Scott Barrick, the choir's general manager. About 325 choir members and , plus 60 staff members and 150 paid guests (mostly spouses) arrive on three chartered planes. On Tuesday, they'll board 11 buses for a morning visit to Colonial Williamsburg before traveling to Washington, D.C. The East Coast tour also will include four luggage trucks and four semis hailing costumes and lighting and sound equipment.
"It's a lot of work, but we'll have a wonderful time," says Barrick. "This year we'll have almost 80 people that are touring with us for the first time."
At each stop, local church members organize tickets for the Mormon community and help arrange a reception for city and arts officials. "We like church members to bring their friends," says Barrick, "Because outreach is one of the missions of the choir."
The choir is directed by Mack Wilbert, a former professor of music at Brigham Young University and a prolific composer and arranger. Many of the pieces perform by the choir are arranged by him.
Monday's mixed program of sacred and secular works will open with two Welsh hymns, the "Gloria" from Dvorak's Mass in G and the "Cum Sancto Spiritu" section from Rossini's "Petite messe solenelle." The program also features American folk hymns and spirituals and classic songs from films such as "White Christmas" and musicals such as "State Fair," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Music Man." Two of the choir's signature hymns, "Come, Come, Ye Saints" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic," will close the program.
Affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the choir is named for the historic Mormon Tabernacle that sits in Salt Lake City and was completed in 1867. Known for its superb acoustics, the tabernacle has been the choir's home since its earliest years. The structure also houses the 11,623-pipe Tabernacle organ.
The choir originated in the mid-19th century as church members moved west and settled in Salt Lake City. It gave its first performance for a church conference in August 1847, 29 days after the first pioneers arrived.
The choir's 360 members range in age from 25 to 60, and members must retire after 20 years of service or at age 60, whichever comes first. Nearly 300 singers audition each year for the typical 20 to 30 openings. The choir currently records on its own label and has made more than 150 recordings since 1910.
Barrack says he often gets requests to send 20 or 30 choir members to an event. But "the choir has become a metaphor for a large, unified and pure sound, so we try not to subdivide them.
"You can hear them on the radio or on recordings," says Barrick. "But there is nothing quite like hearing them live in a public performance."
MTC by the numbers:
•360 choir members; 110-piece orchestra
•600 are traveling with the group on 3 chartered planes