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Kristin Murphy
Utah Voices performs at Utah's Constitution Day Celebration, through the Hinckley Institute of Politics and America's Freedom Alliance, at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on Friday, September 17, 2010.
Utah Voices has a different vision of what the choral experience should be for both choir members and audience.

If you’ve ever attended any kind of choral performance, you probably think you have a good idea of what they're always like.

The singers shuffle onto the stage, someone sits at the piano, the conductor stands before the group and they sing two hours away before shuffling off the stage, ending the concert.

Utah Voices has a different vision of what the choral experience should be for both choir members and audience.

“Rehearsals are never dull; concerts never boring,” reads the choir’s mission statement on its website.

“I think that Utah Voices has set a precedent that we do not ever have boring concerts. …We want the concept of choral singing to be something that is engaging,” said Juliann Peacock, managing director and one of the founders of the choir.

The formula seems to be working. According to its creators, the 180-member choir has already developed quite the following and has even been invited to perform in the Lincoln Center in New York this month.

Utah Voices is only in its third season.

The 2011-2012 season officially kicks off with a fall performance, “Hometown Praise” on Nov. 11 at the Libby Gardner Concert Hall in Salt Lake City.

The choir is currently under the direction of Dr. Michael Huff, a visiting professor at Utah State University. Among other accomplishments, Huff was associate conductor and principal accompanist for the Utah Symphony Chorus for more than a decade. He’s spent many years building a reputation as a conductor, arranger, composer, teacher and clinician.

Huff described a “blueprint” he had set aside years ago, a plan for how he would run a choir if he got the chance. The development of a brand new community choir gave him that chance.

Peacock and some other members of a community choir Huff had directed wanted to continue singing under Huff’s direction. Peacock said she approached Huff and he basically told her if she started pulling a choir together for him to conduct, he would conduct it.

“The Utah Voices plan was my plan for the ultimate community choir,” he said. He described a choir that exists to serve its members and the community, one that puts on concerts that are both interesting and entertaining, one that is inclusive. And, he says, Utah Voices is that choir.

The most important thing that sets the choir apart, both Huff and Peacock agree, is that Utah Voices is a non-auditioned choir.

“Even though it’s a non-auditioned chorus, they (the singers) really do rise to the occasion,” Peacock said. A veteran choral singer herself, she explained that thanks to the work of Huff and associate conductor Kelly DeHaan, the choir members “attain a level of musicianship that in my experience in other choirs has been non-existent.”

“We believe that anyone that wants to sing should be able to sing,” she said.

“Auditions are useful if you want instant screening,” Huff said, pointing out that many talented people won’t try out for choirs out of fear of that audition. The creators of Utah Voices made the decision early on to keep the choir open to all and to simply work hard to achieve quality. “The end result, I think, isn’t so different,” Huff said, quickly adding, that they never compromise their artistic standards.

“My job is to show up at rehearsal every week and do everything I possibly can to inspire them to sing better than they think they can,” he said.

Utah Voices singers demonstrated their skill in 2009 with their debut performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” a performance that has become a December tradition for the choir and the one that earned them the invitation to sing the same song in New York.

“We feel like we do the best job in town,” Huff said of their hallmark performance.

Pulling off the likes of “Messiah” requires a great deal of work.

Huff said the weekly two-hour rehearsals are very rigorous. He described splitting the time into 15-minute segments, sometimes even cutting those segments in half to help focus on a certain piece for a certain amount of time and keep things moving.

“There is barely any time for anyone to think their own thoughts,” Huff said. “I’m drenched with perspiration within the first 15 minutes.”

But the singers are willing to brave the fast-paced rehearsals because they love to sing. That love is the main a uniting factor for the diverse choir.

Members are only required to be 16 or older. And they've had 16-year-olds. They’ve had an 87-year-old. They have members with degrees in vocal performance, members who teach vocal performance or conduct choirs at schools. They have members who have never sung in an organized choir before.

“The one thing that everybody has in common is their love of music and their love of singing together,” Peacock said.

The members of Utah Voices are proud of the diversity in background and skill level of their singers, believing it only enhances their performances.

And according to Peacock and Huff, the audience response is evidence of the quality Huff has demanded of his choir. For one thing, the first two shows they ever did sold out.

Both Huff and Peacock are excited about bringing back “Broadway Bingo,” a performance they first tried last year. The evening consisted of show tunes, bingo cards and prizes—an all-around fun way of involving the audience. Peacock called the performance “wildly successful.”

This season’s first concert, “Hometown Praises” is a spiritual tribute to God, country and veterans.

“Dr. Huff believes that we live in such a rich, fertile area for music and talent and the appreciation of the arts,” Peacock said. The program is a reflection of that.

“I wanted to feature music that belongs to us as Utahns,” Huff said. The concert will feature arrangements by Huff and DeHaan, plus Janice Kapp Perry and a “healthy helping” of Mack Wilberg, whom Huff considers a musical fixture in the community and culture of Utah. Although the program is centered on sacred music, Huff believes that thanks to a variety of song styles, the performance will resonate with anyone.

The 22-song program demonstrates the choir’s ambition.

And now so early into their history, Distinguished Concerts International New York has invited them to perform "Messiah" Nov. 27 at the Lincoln Center alongside four soloists and six other choirs. About 80 of the 180 choir members are making the trip on their own dime.

Peacock and Huff agree that the choir’s goal is to eventually take their talent and diversity on the road.

Huff said they will have to continue building a reputation for excellence in order to really begin touring.

“That’s going to take us some time, but I want to do it,” he said. “It’d be great.”

“I feel like that (the New York trip)’s our step in that direction and it’s a great first step,” Peacock said.

Peacock believes Utah Voices is quickly gaining momentum and has nothing but the future to look forward to. In the meantime, the choir will keep working on establishing its Utah roots with its unique formula.

“Utah Voices is not just another musical entertainment option. … We really are wanting to reach out to people in the community who are interested in having and evening of real inspiration, of unexpected entertainment, of musical excellence,” Huff said.

“We want to be somebody in this artistic community.”

Other Utah Voices performances for the 2011-2012 season include the annual "Messiah" performance on Dec. 12, "Glorious Beethoven" March 17, "Broadway Bingo" in May and Pioneer Day services at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake. For more information, visit http://utahvoices.org/.

If you go...

What: Utah Voices, "Hometown Praise"

Where: Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

When: Friday, Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m.

Web: http://utahvoices.org/ Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

Email: hbowler@desnews.com