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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Heavenly choir


The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which performed at Expo '74, returns for a show Tuesday at the Spokane Arena. 
 (Photo courtesy of Bravo Entertainment / The Spokesman-Review)
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which performed at Expo '74, returns for a show Tuesday at the Spokane Arena. (Photo courtesy of Bravo Entertainment / The Spokesman-Review)

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir might not have the fondest memories of its Expo ‘74 visit to the Spokane Coliseum.

A reviewer the next day wrote that “the Coliseum was extremely warm and humid and the room still smelled strongly of Larry Mahan’s rodeo.”

Whew. Not the best conditions for enjoying the nation’s premier choir.

On a return visit Tuesday night, the ambiance should be considerably fresher. An air-conditioned and livestock-free Spokane Arena will be the locale this time.

It’s a mighty large venue, but then again, this choir has always been a highly popular draw.

In fact, here’s a word you might not associate with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: chart-toppers.

Yes, the group had a No. 1 Billboard album in 1959, “The Lord’s Prayer,” dethroning the hottest act in the country that year: the Kingston Trio. So you might say the MTC knocked off the “M.T.A.” – one of the trio’s hits of the day.

More recently, the choir has racked up five gold records and two platinums, the latter in the 1990s.

Yet despite this surprising commercial success, the reputation of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has never been based on sales. It is based on sheer musical quality.

That status is all the more remarkable when you consider: The choir is all-volunteer.

All 360 members are unpaid, donating their time and talents.

The 50-piece orchestra traveling with them is also all-volunteer. When they arrive at the Arena as part of a two-week summer tour of the West, many members will be using vacation time from their day jobs.

Don’t get the idea that this means they are “amateur,” at least when it comes to musical standards.

All members of the choir have survived a stringent, three-phase audition process, beginning in January of every year.

First, they must submit an unaccompanied recording of a song, selected by the music director.

Applicants who make it through that stage are given a musical skills and aptitude test.

If they score high enough, they get a live audition in front of the choir’s directors.

Even if they survive that, they must train for three months with the Temple Square Chorale, an auxiliary group, before becoming full-fledged members of the choir.

Two other requirements: They must live within 100 miles of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and they must be active members of the Mormon Church.

This is, after all, the house choir of the Mormon Tabernacle.

Even so, the waiting list of applicants is longer than ever. A 20-year maximum tenure is enforced, in part to open up slots for new singers.

The group traces its history back to 1847, when a small choir gathered in the Salt Lake Valley just 29 days after the first settlers arrived.

It has been performing for both sacred and secular events ever since.

A weekly radio show, “Music and the Spoken Word,” has been on the air continuously since 1929.

However, it was in 1959 that the choir achieved the status of a national institution. That’s the year it released “The Lord’s Prayer” and a stirring version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” made it to No. 13 on the Billboard Top 40 chart – at a time when the other hit singles were “A Big Hunk o’ Love” by Elvis Presley and “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin.

Since then, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed with many of the great orchestras in the world, including the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London.

It also has appeared at 13 world’s fairs and expos, including that Expo ‘74 visit.

That night, the choir overcame all sensory obstacles.

The reviewer went on to say that the performance was “superb” and the voices “blended so well together that at times it sounded like one voice.”

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