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Mormon Tabernacle: making sweet music

The Salt Lake Tabernacle is many things: gathering place, an example of early Utah architecture, a symbol of pioneer faith and ingenuity.But a couple of times a year it also becomes a recording studio.During the last week of May, the doors were closed, a recording center was set up in the back performing lounge, and quilts covered all the benches, as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded American folk hymns for an album that will be released in the spring of 2009.Many people are surprised at how far in advance the choir works, says Scott Barrick, executive director of the choir. But if you go behind the scenes at a recording session, you quickly realize just how much is involved in putting together a CD of this type.This is the second CD that the choir has recorded in the Tabernacle since the building's two-year, multimillion-dollar renovation. The first was Mack Wilberg's "Requiem." That one had slightly different dynamics and didn't require as many changes. But this time, they've had to relearn what it means to record in the Tabernacle, Barrick says."The object of the engineers who did the restoration was to make the sound no better and no worse. They failed a little — on the good side. The acoustics are actually a bit better. Very simple things, like replacing the linoleum in the balcony, have an effect on the sound. They also tell us that it will change somewhat as the plaster on the ceiling ages. But right now it is a better recording studio than ever before."Still, there were some surprises. For example, they found that the water fountains make noise, so they've had to bring in jugs of water. The smoke detectors that were installed in the organ make tiny noises as they "sniff the air for smoke." So, they had to be turned off temporarily."There's a lot you never think about until you hear a noise on a take, and then you have to find out where it comes from," Barrick says. But with all the microphones scattered about, they are able to pinpoint exactly where any noise — or wrong note — is coming from.And then, there's the fact that "we are right downtown. Sometime we come to the end of a take and all of a sudden, we hear a siren outside."The quilts on the benches are also there to improve sound quality. "The quilts are like an audience — but with no coughing and talking," he says. "The engineers didn't like what they call a 'swimmy' sound, so we put the quilts out to absorb some of the sound, and the quality becomes crisper, cleaner."And probably only with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he says jokingly, "could we send out an e-mail in the morning and have every member show up with a quilt that night."

Recording is the "most intense period for the choir," Barrick says. "They have to be here every night for a week and then all day on Saturday. This, and Christmas, are the busiest times."But it's fun, too. "All the women bring in cookies."And then there's the orchestra. "With the choir, you have the same eight parts each time. But the orchestra changes song by song. Plus, this week there's a huge trombone convention in town that some of our members are involved in, so we have to schedule around that."Barry Anderson, administrative manager of the Orchestra at Temple Square, is the person who puts the orchestra puzzle together for each recording session."We have some 110-120 musicians on the roster. Like the choir, they audition and are set apart as music missionaries." But because it is a volunteer organization, "we have people from many walks of life. We have professional musicians, music teachers, other professionals, moms. But the sound they create, when they all come together, is very high caliber, very close to professional. It's amazing how it all comes together and meshes."But not all members are needed every time. Plus, because this album features a lot of folk music, new musicians are brought in: a banjo player, the bagpipers, more harpists, piano players, penny whistle players.What happens, Anderson says, "is that as the repertoire is selected, they bring it to me. My job is to do an instrumentation list. With the choir, if a couple of altos can't be there, the rest just sing a bit louder. But with the orchestra, if the clarinets aren't there, the bassoons can't just play louder."So, he says, he has to find out when everyone one can and can't be there, and then put together a schedule. "Every night we have a different roster. We schedule around everything else in their lives."But, he adds, the orchestra, which came on board in 1999, "adds so much emotion. The choir sounds wonderful. You add the orchestra and it enhances everything."Mac Christensen, president of the choir, agrees. "We are blessed to have such harmony in this organization. It's very different from the business world, where you get a lot of strong-minded people pulling in different directions. We have strong-minded, talented people, but they are all here for the right reason. It's such a pleasure to be here."In the past, he says, there were communication problems between the two entities. "But Barry has done just a good job. We are now one group, blended together."This is more than a one-person job, he says. "The thing that probably blows my mind more than anything is how many people it takes to make it a success. We have a facility with sound second to none. The orchestra and choir come in and give everything they have. They go over it and over it to get it right. It's unbelievable. When it all comes together, it's a little miracle."