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'Strong musical roots': Salt Lake City to host the American Choral Directors Association's national conference Feb. 25-28

Salt Lake City will play host to the 2015 American Choral Directors Association National Conference from Feb. 25-28. It's the first time the event has been held in the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir since the ACDA's first gathering 30 years ago in March 1985.

During the conference, tens of thousands of directors and singers will share their love of choral music, engage in classes and read new music.

Scott Dorsey is anticipating "the most intelligent musical audience in the world at that moment.”

Dorsey, ACDA director of education and communications, said the organization focuses on choral conductors because they are the ones who transmit information to their choirs.

“A football team is only as good as its coach, and a choir is only as good as the person providing its leadership,” Dorsey said. “You can take a choir full of very modestly talented people, and with the right leadership, they can sing far beyond the capabilities of the individual part.”

The majority of the choir directors attending are those who work with high school and middle school students, although there will also be directors from elementary, university, church, community, professional and semi-professional choirs. The conference will give conductors education and resources to become better teachers so each choir can “exceed the sum of its parts,” Dorsey said.

“At the end of that day — even though we’re standing there in a white tie and tails onstage — we really are just teachers, but our classroom ends up onstage,” he said.

Also attending the conference will be 40 choirs invited to perform out of hundreds of choirs that auditioned. The choirs performing are from not only the United States but also Cuba, Japan, the United Kingdom and other countries. Dorsey said the competition is stiff but worth it as “getting to this stage is, for many directors, the absolute pinnacle of their career.”

“When your peers — people who understand what it is you actually do — when they issue an invitation, it has vastly more weight to it,” he said.

Dorsey said Salt Lake City is a good fit for the conference because of its “rich and diverse arts tradition. … Certainly, the Tabernacle and the (Mormon Tabernacle Choir) are right up our alley.”

He said the city offers venues with good acoustic qualities, which is important because the conference does not use any sound systems.

“Choral music is made with the human voice, period,” he said. “We’re not going to be in a coliseum where everyone is on a microphone; that’s completely against the nature of the art form. So we’re always extremely demanding on the spaces in which we sing because they must have exceptionally fine acoustics.”

The Salt Lake Tabernacle and Abravanel Hall will be the performance bases for the conference, with other events being hosted in venues such as the Conference Center Little Theater, the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the Salt Palace Convention Center, the Assembly Hall on Temple Square and the LDS Conference Center.

Jean Applonie, president of the Utah chapter of the American Choral Directors Association, said that in the more than 20 years she has attended conventions, all the walking between venues has been exhausting. That won’t be the case this year.

“Salt Lake City provides close juxtaposition of the world-class performance venues” and nearby entertainment for visitors, she said.

But Salt Lake City's merits for serving as the conference's location this year go beyond convenience, she said.

“It was a wonderful choice because of the strong musical roots that exist in the state of Utah,” she said.

Applonie also directs Brigham Young University's Women’s Chorus, which will perform at the conference. She called it the “opportunity of a lifetime” because it will be the choir’s first time performing at the ACDA's national conference. Women’s Chorus doesn't have a travel budget.

“The conference has to come to us,” she said.

Other local ensembles performing include the University of Utah A Cappella Choir and Chamber Choir, Utah State University Chamber Singers, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony Chorus, among others.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is performing in two evening concerts for ACDA members only Thursday and Friday and in a community concert Saturday. The closing concert will be open to the public as the world's largest community sing-in and will also feature the Orchestra at Temple Square, ACDA National Conference Honor Choirs, Broadway and "Frozen" star Santino Fontana and Grammy Award-winner Sylvia McNair.

This will be the second time Mormon Tabernacle Choir President Ron Jarrett has attended the conference, but this time he will be serving in a different capacity. He performed in the choir for eight and a half years as a first tenor before serving as president and was with the choir when it performed for the 2005 national conference in Los Angeles. This year, he is helping organize the event.

Jarrett said performing for the association requires special attention to detail and that the rehearsals this time around are similar to those from when the choir performed at the conference in 2005. He recalled that everyone worked hard at intense extra sectional rehearsals to focus on intonation, diction and rhythm for their memorized selections to “put the choir in the very best light possible for these concerts.”

“To the directors, this is an opportunity to show off their very best work, so they want it to be absolutely perfect,” he said. “It was a very intense but very satisfying experience because of the amount of emotion that came as a result.”

Jarrett said the audience of directors listens to one number after another as “critics of the work” and to get ideas for pieces they would like to try with their own choirs.

“To have an audience that really appreciated the quality that you were trying to share with them was very powerful, and we felt that in their applause,” he said.

Over the course of the conference, the choir will perform new music as well as perfected favorites, Jarrett said. Two of the songs will be “Call of the Champions,” a signature piece the choir sang at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and “Hymn of Praise,” written by Mormon Tabernacle Choir director Mack Wilberg.

“The lyrics (of 'Hymn of Praise') have been rewritten for this event, so they’re performing it as though it was a first-time premiere,” Jarrett said.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is an institution recognized as a professional, well-trained and proficient choir even though it’s made up of 360 amateur, volunteer voices, Jarrett said. “Being a part of that is exciting” but also a “heavy responsibility." Jarrett said Wilberg pushes the choir to be better with each performance.

With such a well-trained audience, he said, the expectations will be high.

“These directors don’t want to hear what we would call 'fluff' music, music that is pleasing to the ear,” Jarrett said. “They want to hear the craft and the art of music, so Mack has selected very important works, difficult works, works that haven’t been heard a great deal that he can bring to light and share so an interest is created in that particular work.”

Jarrett said while it was an “unusual and rare experience” to sing at the conference in 2005, he's enjoyed the expanded role of assisting in hosting the event this year. Seeing both sides has been “a great blessing.”

“It doesn’t have the United States or worldwide appeal as, say, the Oscars or the Emmys or something like that, but in the music world, it is extremely significant,” Jarrett said. “All the choirs that are invited to perform look at that as a very prestigious experience and a very appreciated invitation. It’s big-time for us.”

If you go ...

What: "From the Treasury of American Song," Mormon Tabernacle Choir with guest artists Sylvia McNair, Santino Fontana, U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants and Combined ACDA National Conference Honor Choir

When: Saturday, Feb. 28, 8 p.m.

Where: Conference Center, 60 W. North Temple

Cost: Free

Web: lds.org/events

Note: Tickets are sold out, but a standby line for last-minute seating will form at the north gate on Temple Square prior to the performance.

Email: vromney@deseretnews.com

Twitter: GinnyRomney