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SYMPHONIC CHOIR GIVES `MIDDLE UTAH' MARVELOUS TREAT

In Utah, choral music is a priority. So is the state's 100th birthday this year. And that means, of course, we'll be seeing dozens of choir concerts to celebrate Utah's centennial.

And one of the earlier entries may have been one of the most popular. On Friday and Saturday night the Salt Lake Symphonic Choir, under the direction of George Welch, presented its 47th annual concert: "Utah We Love Thee: A Utah Centennial Event."Musically, it would be hard to imagine a a genre or style that wasn't covered at some point during the evening.

The format for the concert was traditional - with the choir standing on risers surrounded by a sound shell. Men were in tuxes, women in teal gowns for the first half, red gowns for the second. The tone for the evening would be high-minded, with a few winks and nods to spice things up.

The program itself was in two parts: six devotional numbers, intermission, then an extended set with a Western flavor as Bill Marcroft narrated the pioneer history between numbers.

Welch has been able to wring an impressive amount of emotional commitment from his group. He puts obvious emphasis on blending, diction, pitch and precision - virtues that often turn into sins for community choirs. And the result was an often tight, pollished sound that at times cost the singers some passion on the bigger numbers and playfulness in the more folksy tunes. Still, the director selected music that played to the choir's strengths, and his use of dynamics was superb.

"Consider the Lilies," a lovely anthem by Roger Hoffman that's fast gaining popularity with both community and big-time choruses, was the loveliest I've heard. And the liturgical "Tenebrae facta sunt" was haunting with its hushed, Latin reverence. A lot of work went into getting the language - and the language of feeling - right.

The "Utah We Love Thee" section of the program was a potpourri of styles and songs - ranging from a loping "Wagon Wheels" to a strong "Lord's Prayer" (the Leroy Robertson arrangement).

The choir turned in some impressive syncopated singing on "A Jubilant Song" (with Bethne Hickcox adding a wonderful, operatic solo over the top). And "America, Our Heritage" was an ambitious and difficult task that came off rather well.

The choir closed with "Land of the Mountains High" ("Utah We Love Thee," a composition by Evan Stephans sung for the original statehood celebration), but was whistled back for three encores, including a quirky "Dry Bones" and a peaceful "Now the Day Is Over."

Jenny Bennett and Susan Newland worked their fingers to the bone as accompanists, coming up with some powerful playing that was just as noteworthy as the singing.

In the end, it was a program aimed at middle America (or "middle Utah" if you will). Welch and his group know their audience. It is an audience that is willing take in a little new, challenging, high-protein music but for the most part an audience that prefers songs that remind them off their deeper feelings and entertain them with familiar numbers presented in a refreshing way.

On Saturday night, they got their money's worth from the Salt Lake Symphonic Choir.