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Natalie Cole, David McCullough share thoughts on performing with Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Christmas concert

This has been an emotional year for singer Natalie Cole, who endured, among other things, kidney transplant surgery. "So to be able to close it out working with these wonderful people, with Mack (Wilberg) and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the orchestra and staff, it's just such a feeling of goodness," she said in a news conference Friday (Dec. 11).

From left, Mormon Tabernacle Choir Director Mack Wilberg,  author David McCullough, singer, songwriter and performer Natalie Cole and Choir President Mac Christensen, speak to the media about annual Christmas concert.
From left, Mormon Tabernacle Choir Director Mack Wilberg, author David McCullough, singer, songwriter and performer Natalie Cole and Choir President Mac Christensen, speak to the media about annual Christmas concert. Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Miss Cole and historian David McCullough are the featured guest artists at this year's annual Christmas concert of the choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, presented Thursday night (Dec. 10) in dress rehearsal at the LDS Conference Center and being repeated Friday and Saturday, with a special appearance by the guests Sunday morning on the Choir's nationwide "Music and the Spoken Word broadcast.

They spoke to reporters on the Conference Center stage, along with musical director Wilberg and choir president Mac Christensen.

"The spirit of everything that Christmas is about is pervasive throughout this hall," Miss Cole said. "It was magnificent last night; it will even be better tonight, now that we've got the heebie-jeebies out.

"I really think that the fact that we're here to honor our Lord Jesus Christ, that He will be definitely be honored, I'm sure that He is pleased."

Natalie Cole performs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during their Christmas concert dress rehearsal Thursday,
Dec. 10, 2009.
Natalie Cole performs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during their Christmas concert dress rehearsal Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

She echoed a statement by Brother Wilberg, that the concert is a collaborative endeavor.

"It's so nice when you take the 'I' out of it and make it a team effort," she said, "and that's really what this is about."

Miss Cole said she is impressed that the choir and orchestra are all volunteers. "They work as hard as if they were getting paid the big money."

She lauded "their spirit, their positiveness and their willingness to do well."

Mr. McCullough said he met director Wilberg last May and was invited on that occasion to be part of the concert. In September, the historian presented some ideas of what could be done on the program. Brother Wilberg said he liked the draft that Mr. McCullough sent to him and asked him to expand on it.

"I think Natalie has said it perfectly," Mr. McCullough said, "of what is so gratifying to be here in this experience, to be included."

He said he is not accustomed to being in front of 21,000 people. "And I'm not accustomed to a big chorus behind me." The impact was so overwhelming, he said, that during the initial rehearsal, he almost fell off the edge of the stage where he was standing.

"I felt it a wonderful chance," he said, "to talk about something I care about greatly, which is that history should not be ever perceived as just politics and the military, and to leave out music, art, literature, architecture, dance, poetry, drama is to leave out not just color and flavor and sound, but a lot of the soul of civilization."

He added, "To have in this one performance, musicians, dancers, people speaking great literature of the Bible, singing, architecture, all working at once, we should never, ever take it for granted."

Miss Cole said one of the songs featured in the second half of the program, "The Holly and the Ivy" was one she recorded years ago for a Christmas album. When she rehearsed it with the choir and orchestra, she thought "What a beautiful arrangement," not realizing it was her own arrangement, having been suggested to Brother Wilberg by her musical director.

Brother Wilberg said, "I think one of the reasons it was suggested is that it has a very big choral part in the background, and it sounds magnificent" with a choir of more than 300 voices.

Asked to share holiday memories of her father, Nat "King" Cole, whose recording of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" has become a Yuletide standard, Miss Cole said, "I love Christmas, and our Christmas was particularly special, because it was a time when the family was all together after Dad was on the road for 350 days out of the year. He was just as caught up in the Christmas spirit as we were. He loved to get toys for us, he loved to be involved in the food. He was in the kitchen a lot, tasting, but never cooking. He always made sure we had sweet potato pie, because that was his favorite."

Brother Wilberg mentioned that though "The Christmas Song" is associated with her father, it has also become a signature piece for Miss Cole. "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."

Referring to another Nat "King" Cole hit, one that by means of technology she has recorded as a duet with her father posthumously, Miss Cole said, "I'm blessed that 'Unforgettable' and 'The Christmas Song' are both songs that are part of my legacy as well."

In fact, following a meeting earlier in the morning with the First Presidency, Miss Cole regaled staff in the Church Administration Building with an impromptu solo. "Since everyone was upset that I wasn't singing 'Unforgettable' in the program, I sang 'Unforgettable' for the secretaries," she said.

Mr. McCullough noted that one of the basic structures of civilization is continuity. "And here you have in Natalie's family that kind of continuity, of an artistic blessing that is sustained and continues."

She had mentioned earlier, when shown a copy of her genealogy prepared by Family History Department researchers, that her grandmother, her father's mother, sang and played the organ in the church that her father was raised in.

Mr. McCullough said he and others old enough to remember her father, were lucky "to have fallen in love to music by Gershwin, lyrics by Cole Porter, singers like Nat "King" Cole and Crosby and Sinatra and Como and Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald."

"I feel sorry for young people growing up today, except when you're singing," he said to Miss Cole.

He said it was also a time of a great renaissance on Broadway, where two or three great musical might be running at the same time.

"And that's what we had last night, was something going on like that," he said.

He added that the audience is as important as the performers, "because we're getting our energy, our desire to do the best we can, from them," an opinion to which Miss Cole readily assented, saying that 50 percent of the success of her performances comes from the audience.

"And I love the fact that you keep the house lights up so we can seem them," Mr. McCullough said to Brother Wilberg.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Miss Cole said, alluding to having been somewhat unnerved by the sight of 21,000 people in the vast Conference Center auditorium.

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