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A volunteer orchestra of professionals

Musical excellence offered freely

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As a Salt Lake Tabernacle audience sits down to a sumptuous helping of Dvorak and Rachmaninov this weekend, it will be enjoying fare produced by musicians who are unsurpassed in quality, according to the director of the Orchestra at Temple Square.

The fact that the orchestra members perform free of charge and receive no money for their service with the orchestra belies the fact that the musicians, who have now been playing together for a year and three months, are of the finest professional caliber in the area, director Barlow Bradford said.

"When I say professional musicians, I'm saying these are people who are making their living as musicians," Brother Bradford explained.

"Each one of them is called and set apart as a Church service missionary, and they are in essence sacrificing their time, their talent to do this. In many cases they're giving up other paid gigs to be here and play, which is not easy, but they have answered a call to do it. When they're not here playing, they are plying somewhere else, be it recording sessions or Utah Symphony concerts or for Ballet West or the Utah Opera Company. Some of them teach; many have private studios. Some are conductors at schools. We have many who are on university faculties."

To reach such a level of expertise requires years of dedication. In many cases, they have been involved in music from a very young age — 8 or younger, he noted.

"Orchestral repertoire is as hard to play as any solo literature out there," Brother Bradford observed. "And that is one of the most interesting things, I think, about an orchestra. It requires individuals with superb technical prowess. And such a person has to be able to get together and mesh that ability with many others who have similar dedication and ability to create a remarkable product."

About 100 musicians are on the orchestra's roster, though it would be rare that they would all be together at once. The lineup depends on the piece being performed.

"The string section is almost always used as a group for everything we do," Brother Barlow said. "And our principal woodwinds and brass play almost everything. But sometimes, for instance, the score will call for two flutes in one piece and four flutes in the next. And with winds and brass, every single player has his or her own part; they're always on the spot. Each person, in effect, is a soloist."

The group had its genesis in the summer of 1999, with auditions. Five months later, it played its first concert. And about that time, it performed in its first recording session, together with the Tabernacle Choir, for the Telarc International label, world renowned for its classical and jazz recordings.

"So the orchestra had been together for five or six months, and here it was recording for this great international group," Brother Barlow said. The resulting album on compact disc, a Christmas offering, was Telarc's biggest seller last year and made the top 10 on the classical music popularity chart, he noted.

Another recording project with the choir this month will result in an album of well-known hymns.

That the orchestra would achieve excellence so quickly is not impossible to imagine when one considers the directive President Gordon B. Hinckley gave Brother Barlow in calling him to the position he now occupies.

"President Hinckley said to me, and to my wife, who was there with me, 'I would like you to create the finest orchestra in all the world.' " Brother Barlow remembered.

Has the orchestra arrived at that point? The director paused a second or two before giving his candid answer: "No."

The process of perfection is not always reached quickly, he acknowledges. He explained: "A finer group of people you would not find. But by the nature of the way the organization is set up, we cannot presently come to that."

The finest orchestras in the world meet many times a month, he said. As a volunteer organization, the Orchestra at Temple Square typically rehearses five times before performing a concert. February is a particularly busy month, with a concert and a recording session at hand, but the group will not meet at all in May.

Also, consideration must be given to the members who make their livelihood by playing professional engagements. As a result, some rotation of personnel is the order of the day.

Moreover, the finest orchestras in the world own the finest instruments in the world, such as 17th and 18th Century violins, he noted. With fine musicians playing them, the sound is unsurpassed.

"But there's a beautiful spirit among this group of people," the director added. "We need to rely not only on the Spirit but upon our own ability to create something beautiful. I believe wholeheartedly that the Lord helps those who help themselves, and for a musician, that means that you're trying to become the very finest you possibly can be. At that point, the Spirit can teach you how to really be the finest."

The excellence of the orchestra will be showcased at the Feb. 10 concert in the Tabernacle, what Brother Barlow calls a "feel-good program, a wonderful Valentine's offering." Featuring Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Brother Barlow's piano professor at his own alma mater, University of Southern California, the program will consist of "Symphony No. 9 in E Minor" by Antonin Dvorak, commonly known as the "New World Symphony," and "Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18" by Sergei Rachmaninov. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m.

Brother Barlow agreed that by offering such musical excellence to the public free of charge, the Church fulfills part of the Savior's commission to be a leavening influence for goodness in society.

E-mail: rscott@desnews.com