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Gift of Christmas: Concert features 'history lesson'

'History lesson' highlights concert of song, color, dancing, pageantry

When eight-time Grammy winner Natalie Cole was a child at Christmastime, the family's holiday was not "official," she said, until they had heard Mel Torme's standard, "The Christmas Song ('Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire')."

"We also had the pleasure and privilege of having the singer of the song right there," she told the audience at this year's annual Christmas concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square, "The Wondrous Gift of Christmas."

Singer Natalie Cole performs at the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference CenterFriday, Dec. 11, 2009,in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News | Tom Smart, Deseret News

She referred, of course, to the iconic recording of the song by her father, Nat "King" Cole. Then, for the capacity audience in the Conference Center auditorium, she performed her own version of the tune, which choir musical director Mack Wilberg at a Friday news conference in Salt Lake City said she has made her own "signature song."

"As soon as she began to sing that Wednesday evening in our first rehearsals, as soon as I heard her sing the first phrase, I felt like I was home."

The Conference Center audience must have agreed, as they rewarded her performance with a standing ovation.

Conductor Mack Wilberg of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singer Natalie Cole and author David McCullough perform at the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference Center Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News | Tom Smart, Deseret News

Presented Dec. 11 and 12, with a public dress rehearsal Dec. 10, the concert also featured widely acclaimed author, American historian and PBS Television documentary narrator David McCullough. Both guests also appeared Dec. 13 on the choir's nationwide broadcast "Music and the Spoken Word".

Singer Natalie Cole performs at the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference Center Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News | Tom Smart, Deseret News

For his part on the program, Mr. McCullough presented the story behind a cherished carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and a beloved song, "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

The words of the hymn, he said, had been written by American clergyman Phillips Brooks after an 1865 visit to the Holy Land. In 1868, he asked the organist of his church, Louis Redner, to put the poem to music that they might sing it at the Christmas service.

Author David McCullough performs at the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference CenterFriday, Dec. 11, 2009,in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News | Tom Smart, Deseret News

"Redner tried, but with no success," Mr. McCullough related. "He went to bed Christmas Eve, he said, feeling he had utterly failed." But the organist was roused from his sleep in the middle of the night hearing an angels' strain, and seizing a piece of paper, he jotted down the "treble" of the tune.

Later, during World War II, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the carol. The Briton focused on the line, "Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light."

"I like to think of Churchill and Roosevelt singing that line at that time in particular," he said. "And as it was said of the prime minister, 'He always sung lustily if not exactly in tune.'"

Organist Richard Elliott acknowledges a standing ovation for his rendition of “Good King Wenceslas,” as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singer Natalie Cole and author David McCullough perform at the annual Christmas Concert at the Conference Center Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

By 1942, with the war still raging and more than 1 million Americans overseas in 65 parts of the world, two New Yorkers, lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent, created "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Mr. McCullough said, "which, in simplest terms, expressed the longing for home and the light in the darkness felt by so very many then."

"When recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942, it became the most popular holiday song of the time," he said, "more even than 'White Christmas.'"

At the news conference, director Wilberg said the "history lesson" was Mr. McCullough's own idea; he sent choir officers a draft in October. Brother Wilberg asked him to expand it.

A giant Christmas tree completes pageantry during final performances and curtain call during The Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert with singer Natalie Cole and author David McCullough at the LDS Conference CenterFriday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Tom Smart, Deseret News
Singer Natalie Cole and author David McCullough applaud at the end of the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference CenterFriday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News | Tom Smart, Deseret News

"Just about a week ago, we finally solidified it, and I started writing the music that goes along with it," he said. "So I've been burning the midnight oil for the last week, making sure the music was right and then also of course having to orchestrate the music so the orchestra and the choir could have it."

Singer Natalie Cole and author David McCullough applaud at the end of the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference Center Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News | Tom Smart, Deseret News

He praised the collaborative spirit of the guest artists and all others involved in the concert.

Singer Natalie Cole performs at the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference Center Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News | Tom Smart, Deseret News

Another high point of the program was Salt Lake Tabernacle Organist Richard Elliot's solo, "Good King Wenceslas," which included elements from several familiar melodies from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite." The performance showcased not only the organist's virtuosity, but the versatility of the Conference Center Organ itself, with dead-on imitations of the sounds of bells, orchestra bells, harp, flutes, strings and brass.

Other selections by Miss Cole on the program included "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Grown-Up Christmas List," "Caroling, Caroling," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and "The Holly and the Ivy." Directing the choir and orchestra for Miss Cole's sets was her music director, Gail Deadrick.

A dancer performs as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singer Natalie Cole and author David McCullough perform at the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference Center Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Tom Smart, Deseret News
Dancers perform as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singer Natalie Cole and author David McCullough perform at the annual Christmas Concert at the LDS Conference CenterFriday, Dec. 11, 2009,in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tom Smart, Deseret News | Tom Smart, Deseret News

The concert was more than just an auditory experience. Dancers, clad in European folk costumes and trained by Carol N. Iwasaki of the University of Utah Department of Ballet, combined with singers from eight community children's choirs for the opening processional. Later, during a celebration of carols from Spain, Jamaica, Ireland, Russia and Germany, they performed again, the spectacle culminating with a brightly lit and ornamented Christmas tree rising seemingly from nowhere.

A performance of Gustav Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter" segued into a reading by Miss Cole of the Christmas story from Luke 2, consistent with what she had said earlier at the news conference: "We're here to honor our Lord, Jesus Christ. … I'm sure that He is pleased."

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