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Mormon Tabernacle Choir successfully taps into new market

By Bryan Gentry

For Mormon Times

Published: Saturday, Jan. 1 2011 6:00 a.m. MST

Pairing with popular artists has broadened the appeal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and helped push its music to the top of the classical music charts in 2010.

Three years after its first No. 1 hit, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had two albums reach the top of Billboard's Classical Albums chart, and a third album peaked at No. 2.

The choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square are ranked in the top 10 of Billboard's year-end Classical Artists chart, with Mack Wilberg, a composer and the choir's music director, following close behind.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' top-level musicians are effectively tapping into a new market for classical music by performing with popular musicians, said Michael Hicks, a music professor at BYU and author of “Mormonism and Music: A History.”

“Lots of musicians of the academic sort ... just roll their eyes at the notion of the Tabernacle Choir accompanying David Archuleta,” Hicks said, referring to the choir's Christmas concert with the former "American Idol" contestant. “But most of the people I know, like, in the neighborhood, are absolutely enthralled at the idea.”

Performing with popular artists has attracted attention to the choir and helped generate variety in the choir's releases, said Bob Ahlander, director of music and film for Deseret Book, which handles marketing and distribution for the choir's record label.

“It's been a good year for the choir,” Ahlander said.

The Tabernacle Choir's first release in 2010 was “Heavensong,” which included a recording of David Foster's popular song “The Prayer.” Foster played piano for the recording and performed in a broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word.” The album rose to No. 1 on the chart and still sits in the top 60.

This summer, “100 Years” also reached the top of Billboard's Classical Albums chart. Basically a “greatest hits” compilation, it included the choir's first recording from one century ago and a DVD of notable performances, such as the inauguration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Ahlander said. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” a recording of the choir's 2009 Christmas concert with Grammy Award-winner Natalie Cole, climbed to No. 2.

The choir's first No. 1 hit came in 2007. It was a recording of its Christmas concert with Norwegian soprano Sissel. Since then, the choir has continued turning its annual Christmas concert into an album for the following year.

In the Christmas season of 2011, expect to find CDs of the concert with Archuleta, Ahlander said.

“I don't imagine that's going to stop,” he said. “As long as they're selling albums, that means there's a demand, and they'll keep putting them out.”

Hicks said the choir's recent releases represent a slight departure from classical tradition for both the choir and the classical genre as a whole. The choir was once best known for strictly classical performances, such as Handel's "Messiah," and the classical genre was dominated by the works of classical composers interpreted by various ensembles, Hicks said. The market for classical music has opened up, accepting most music that includes a choir or an orchestra.

“The choir, to a large extent, has tried to court this new classical audience,” Hicks said.

Meanwhile, the choir also attracts an audience because of the ways in which it has not changed. Hicks said the tone, format and message of its "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcasts are essentially the same as they were 50 years ago, exemplifying a stability that many people yearn for.

“There aren't many things that you can say that about, certainly in media," he said. "That's an appeal."

Bryan Gentry lives in Lynchburg, Va., where he works as a newspaper reporter. He blogs at http://bryangentry.wordpress.com.

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