Mormon Tabernacle Choir hopes for increased international reach with release of new album

By Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Sept. 9 2013 12:30 p.m. MDT

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir's music director, Mack Wilberg, working with the choir.

Photos courtesy of Kim Farah

For Ann Sweeney, music is in her blood. And it's a similar story for family that has come before her.

Sweeney, a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, has sung with what's been dubbed America's Choir for 13 years.

Her mother, Alice Swenson, sang in the choir nearly 70 years ago and her great-great-grandfather, a Welsh immigrant, was an original member of the choir.

Most recently, Sweeney has been a part of a collaboration with classical music industry giant Deutsche Grammophon and multi-platinum-award-winning Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel for the Sept. 10 release of "Homeward Bound."

The album, a love letter to the choir's own proud Welsh heritage, includes songs from British and American folk and popular songs, hymns, spirituals and classical compositions, according to a press release from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"(The album features) a repertoire with a decidedly Americana feel which also reflects the shared Welsh heritage of Terfel and the choir," according to the press release.

The history of the choir dates back to 1849, with a group of Welsh immigrants who were continuing their exodus, this time, to the Salt Lake Valley.

As they traveled hundreds of miles, these Welsh Saints passed the time by singing under the direction of John Parry, a minister and musician from Newmarket, North Wales.

Upon arriving in Salt Lake, Parry officially organized the singers into a small group that would eventually become the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

This heritage is rooted deeply within the choir as many members share Welsh ancestry, including Sweeney.

Because when times are hard, Sweeney has learned to sing.

"I tried to picture my ancestors leaving the homeland they loved, the culture they loved and leaving family — setting the course toward Zion because the gospel meant so much to them," Sweeney said.

Many Welsh members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who left their country to follow their newfound faith, faced persecution as they began their exodus to America. Yet despite the bitterness of their trials, the Welsh church members were known for singing while traveling.

"I've had some real heartaches in my own life in the 13 years I've been in the choir. Singing has been my healing balm that has gotten me through," she said. "It's the vehicle in which I can testify to the world that I believe in God and I believe in mankind."

And that medium for testimony will be felt further than ever before.

While the process for recording with Deutsche Grammophon is no different than previous albums, the Berlin-based recording studio reaches an international market, opening doors to market to a larger, worldwide audience.

"We are part of Universal Music group, and we have an international network," said Ute Fesquet, vice president of artists and repertoire for Deutsche Grammophon. "People know of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They know its repertoire. We have the ambition, and I am totally convinced that we will be able to bring (the album) to more people than they normally reach and we normally reach."

In September 2012, the choir and recording company began preparations for the collaboration. Choir president Ron Jarrett met with representatives from Deutsche Grammophon, including Fesquet, and said from there, the whole process seemed to flow.

Terfel, who has been with Deutsche Grammophon for the past 20 years, was instrumental in making the collaboration a reality, Fesquet said.

The award-winning bass baritone returned to work with the choir and director Mack Wilberg after first joining forces for the 2003 Christmas concert and again in 2007 for the inaugural concert for the newly renovated Salt Lake Tabernacle.

"Bryn gave us a DVD that was made of the Christmas concert. I was stunned," said Fesquet. "I'm German, (and) we also have a strong choir tradition, but nowhere near this. I'm surprised to hear that big of a group of singers sing so cultivated and sing with one voice."

From there, Fesquet said it was simply a matter of putting the pieces together.

The three music giants, the choir, Terfel and Deutsche Grammophon met, in May to record the album in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

For Jarrett, it's a realization of his goal to market and distribute the choir internationally.

"I don't know what the future will bring from this. It's such a big thing and so new that we could go anywhere with this," Jarrett said. "I can see us all over Europe with this. Anywhere people are willing to listen, they'll be touched because music is of the heart, and they'll get the message."

And for choir members like Sweeney, the project has come full circle, because of the pioneer efforts of her ancestors who made this opportunity possible.

"The CD will go and let someone in Bulgaria feel of my testimony and know that there are people out there that believe in a good life and that we have a God and that we have love for all mankind," Sweeney said.

And she's hopeful that the album's release will be a success.

"You take Bryn's incredible talent, Mack's incredible talent, the best recording people and this incredible choir — I just feel like the result is going to be exquisite," she said.

Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock

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