SALT LAKE CITY — The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square continues to play the waiting game.
The 360 singers haven’t met for their usual weekly rehearsals because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Live performances have been on hold since March. In April, the choir postponed its summer tour to 2021.
And with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ October session of general conference being completely virtual, the choir has planned to continue sharing pre-recorded “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts each week at least through the early fall, according to the choir’s general manager, Scott Barrick.
But the choir hasn’t yet made a decision about its annual Christmas concert — a sold-out tradition that includes renowned guest artists and, each December, draws 63,000 people to downtown Salt Lake City.
“Like everybody else, we’re still kind of waiting for things to unfold and see how they go,” Barrick recently told the Deseret News. “We’re sending our prayers heavenward that there are solutions that enable us to get the choir back together.
“But the sad reality is that singing is one of the most efficient ways of spreading this virus,” he added.
In the meantime, Barrick said people can expect to see last year’s Christmas concert — featuring Broadway star Kelli O’Hara and “The Waltons” actor Richard Thomas — on BYUtv and PBS this year. He also said the choir has been exploring “options” for this year’s Christmas concert, although he didn’t elaborate on what those plans entail.
“We’re still in the analysis phase and seeing what makes sense and what recommendations will be approved,” he said. “But we have options, and the choir will not disappoint.”
Although the pandemic has kept the choir from its usual activities, the ensemble has gained a greater following in recent months as it has relied on previously recorded broadcasts and performances. Part of that upward trend comes as more people have made “Music and the Spoken Word” a part of their at-home church services, Barrick said.
“It’s enormously satisfying for us to think that the choir and the orchestra could be providing the prelude to Sunday worship services for so many people,” Barrick said, adding that the choir’s music director, Mack Wilberg, works with executive producers to select previously aired broadcasts that may have added relevance during this time.
Recent topics have included persevering, overcoming challenges and finding light in times of darkness.
Before the pandemic, Barrick said “Music and the Spoken Word” online viewership ranged between 6,000 and 9,000 views. On YouTube alone, that viewership has since tripled.
“We know that tens of thousands more people are watching the broadcast since COVID than before,” he said. “And our colleagues that air the broadcast at BYUtv every week are seeing the same kind of lift in viewership. … The exposure of the broadcast is so much stronger than it has been in times past.”
The choir has also been developing a stronger digital presence over the past few months, making “Music and the Spoken Word” and other broadcasts more accessible to viewers (many of these broadcasts can still be viewed on the choir’s social media channels).
A new online chat feature on YouTube, led by choir member and Brigham Young University School of Music professor Luke Howard, gives viewers more information about the music featured in each program. Howard’s commentary on the composers, lyrics and previous choir performances drops in the online chat each week.
That feature has also become an important part of “Piping Up,” a new online series that has revived the weekly noon recitals performed by the Tabernacle and Temple Square organists. As the Tabernacle organ undergoes scheduled renovations, the recitals now come live three times a week from the Conference Center. During the programs, pre-recorded messages from Howard offer more details about the music.
“Part of the motivation for doing this was just to keep (the organists) at the top of their game, but it really had the extra benefit of being able to have something coming from Temple Square at a time when Temple Square is closed,” Barrick said. “This has been kind of an opportunity to export Temple Square around the world, and it’s worked out really well.”
The series’ kickoff concert — still available for streaming on YouTube — has garnered more than 65,000 views. Since that first event, the weekly organ livestreams have typically drawn between 2,000 and 2,500 views, Barrick said. That viewership will likely increase as recitals can now be viewed on YouTube and Facebook and, as of Wednesday, are available to watch after the initial livestream has aired.
“We feel like we’re reaching a lot bigger audience altogether with this,” Barrick said. “We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible for people to listen whenever they like to.”
Barrick called the choir’s audience growth during this time a “phenomenon.” And while he looks forward to the choir reuniting and putting together new performances, he said the most important thing is to contain the virus — on Thursday, Utah reached 300 deaths related to COVID-19.
“We have to be sure that before we can gather the choir together and the orchestra, too, … we just have to make sure that it’s safe for everybody,” he said. “But particularly during this COVID time frame, the esteem and the appreciation for the work of the choir has just been wonderful. Even though we have this period where we are without the choir, we still have all of their wonderful performances we’ll be continuing to share.
“So regardless of what happens, a lot of the choir is still around.”