A survivor

Mormon Tabernacle Choir makes first Atlanta appearance in 30 years

that great wall of pure American sound known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings the songs our parents taught us and dares us not to be moved — and we usually are. Yet the general public knows little about the world's most famous choir. If the whys and wherefores of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have seemed somewhat shrouded in mystery, it hasn't been intentional. It's simply because the MTC has never needed to toot its own horn.

The choir originated in the mid-19th century, when Salt Lake City's expanding Mormon Tabernacle dictated the need for a large-scale choral group, one close in number to the 360 of today's choir.

The MTC has hosted "Music and the Spoken Word" since 1929, making it the world's longest-running radio broadcast. The choir participated in a golden era of stereophonic recordings in the '50s and '60s, notably with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Their legendary "Messiah" was the first classical album to go gold. They have sung for eight presidential inaugurations and hold an irreproachable international reputation as American musical ambassadors.

Not bad for a bunch of amateur church singers.

The first requirement for choir membership is you have to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are other requirements: You must live within 100 miles of the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City (many choir members move there just to belong) and you must be between 25 and 55 years old to audition. There is mandatory retirement when you reach 60 or when you've been a member for 20 years. And to clear up one final mystery — there are no paid singers. This is an all-amateur choir.

The twice-yearly audition process is conducted in three parts: a musical skills test, a written exam and the singing audition. In this past year's round of auditions, there were 160 applicants and only 17 made the grade. Even then, singers are required to spend three months with a training choir before they're allowed in the big leagues.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir's 14th director, 51-year-old Craig Jessop, was appointed in 1999. "I grew up with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and I've loved it all my life," he says. "It's in my blood."

On its current Southeastern tour, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will be giving the first Atlanta performance since the '60s, although Jessop has ties of a sort to Atlanta. While Commander of the American Air Force Band in Germany, Jessop contributed instrumentalists to many of late ASO conductor Robert Shaw's European recordings, and sang in many Shaw choral performances. When Jessop took over the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he commissioned Shaw to record an English-language Brahms Requiem with the group, a project the conductor didn't live to finish, although the choir completed the recording in his memory.

Among the initiated, the MTC is noted for its diverse performances. For instance, this year, they are performing the "Rachmaninoff Vespers" in Russian. But some perceive the MTC to be unsophisticated, taking the easy path on the road of artistic integrity by building a reputation on familiar hymns and patriotic songs. What's more, the MTC's musical arrangements are usually far simpler than many choirs with serious classical reputations.

But while these detractors can argue the merits of another rendition of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," they can't dispute the high level of musical artistry in the choir's sound. "Those who are critical of us are misinformed as to our mission," Jessop says. "We are a church choir. We do the symphonic repertoire, but our primary mission is the weekly radio broadcast, along with supporting the church. Our life is driven by this radio program, which presents popular, folk and patriotic music, always with the intent of inspiring people. It's unfair to compare us to, say, the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. You could compare us instead to the Boston Pops."

Former Atlantan Eileen Gardner has sung alto with the MTC for 12 years, in a choir career that has taken her to Spain, Russia and all of Western Europe. "It takes up a major portion of my life," she says. "But we get a wonderful musical education."

Members come and go, but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is, like all historic institutions, unchangeable. Its signature sound — of grandeur yet simplicity, evocative of American composers such as Aaron Copland — has remained unchanged throughout the decades. It is an American choral sound, ideally suited to American music.

"This choir has a rich legacy to preserve, and I don't want to do anything different," says Jessop. "It brings in listeners who would never otherwise go to a classical or choral music concert. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is presented in an interdenominational way, and that's why it has survived. As the president of the Mormon church, Gordon B. Hinkley, says, it must be the highest exponent of choral art to be found anywhere, but it must always sing to the people."

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs Thursday, June 21, at 8 p.m. at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St., Atlanta. For tickets, call 404-881-2100 or Ticketmaster at 404-817-8700.??