A fog enshrouded stage and a processional of dancers in the aisles clad in garb of the peasantry, gentry and nobility of 18th century London, England, greeted audiences at this year’s Christmas concerts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
Christ-centered, each of the three performances culminated with a narrative and enactment depicting the origins of Handel’s Messiah and the way in which early performances of the now-famous oratorio, which debuted in Dublin, Ireland, in 1741, was used to bless the lives of the poor and downtrodden.
“This year, we wanted to share Handel’s work as we prepare to release our new CD,” choir president Ron Jarrett said to news reporters on Dec. 18, the morning after the opening performance.
That two-disc album will be released on March 4 next year in time for Easter.
“This has been a two-year project,” musical director Mack Wilberg said at the news conference. “And to be able to present this concert at this important Christmas season is just the culmination of all that work that has gone into the making of this recording, and we’re just so honored and delighted to have so many distinguished artists with us this month and this season to be able to do this.”
Those artists, six in all, included Broadway Star Laura Osnes, veteran British stage and screen actor Martin Jarvis, and four luminaries from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera: soprano Erin Morley, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Ben Bliss and bass-baritone Tyler Simpson. All the Metropolitan soloists except Mr. Simpson are members of the Church. Brother Wilberg mentioned that Sister Morley will again sing with the choir and orchestra for a performance of “Messiah” on Easter weekend next year in Salt Lake City.
In a commanding delivery, Mr. Jarvis told the story of the czreation and early performances of “Messiah,” as actors and dancers from the earlier processional took the stage and the Metropolitan Opera soloists along with the choir and orchestra in turn performed selections from the oratorio, befitting incidents recounted in the narrative.
Gerry Graves, a recently retired member of the choir, portrayed George Frideric Handel, seated at a desk composing what would be a 260-page score, and appearing to sing as each selection was performed.
“We knew that Gerry had some acting ability as well as singing ability,” Brother Wilberg explained, “and so when this opportunity came about, he was one of the first names that came up and seemed like a perfect choice and match for what we were trying to do.”
As recounted in Mr. Jarvis’ narration, Handel, burdened with debt and suffering the pains of rheumatism, completed the work in 24 days, ready for it to be copied, rehearsed and readied for the premiere in Dublin, a charity performance to raise money to free paupers incarcerated in debtors’ prison.
The oratorio was largely ignored for years, but then Handel arranged for another charity performance, this time to raise money to complete construction of a foundling hospital that sheltered infants born out of wedlock and shunned by society, raising them to lead meaningful lives.
After that 1750 performance in the unfinished chapel of the hospital, the oratorio continued to be performed there annually for 20 years, and it gained popularity.
“Jesus said, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’ ” Brother Jarvis said in his narration. “The fruits of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ were real and abundant: freed debtors, liberated mothers, rescued children. Handel hadn’t simply told the story of the Messiah, the Redeemer, he had actually helped to do the Messiah’s work, to succor God’s children and save them from spiritual death. For each of these precious souls, the Redeemer liveth.”
The segment climaxed with the choir and orchestra performing “Halleluja!” from the oratorio, causing the audience to rise, as is tradition in performances of that chorus, a high point of the concert.
For Miss Osnes, this was her second appearance with the choir and orchestra on the Conference Center stage in less than six months; she was the guest artist in July at the choir’s annual Pioneer Day concert.
“When you think of things that fit perfectly with Christmas, can you think of anything better than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?” she asked the audience after singing her opening selection, “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Speaking of being in Salt Lake for the summer concerts, she said, “I remember hugging all of my new friends goodbye after the choir sang ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again,’ and I never dreamed that we’d meet again so soon.”
She said she loves everything about Christmas — gifts, music, parties, lights. “Oh, and my goodness! I guess you’ve seen the lights on Temple Square. But most of all I love what is at the heart of Christmas, of all the trimmings and celebrations, and that is Jesus Christ, the Lord.”
Asked about that comment the next day at the news conference, Miss Osnes said, “I was raised Christian. My grandfather was actually a Lutheran pastor, so that’s been a part of my life and my family for a very long time. I’m not Mormon. I have a lot of friends who are Mormon, and a lot of the beliefs coincide, and a lot of them don’t. But that’s not what it’s about for me. I’ve been able to relate to it in my own personal way, and the fact that there is a spiritual element to the concert is undeniable. Hopefully everyone, Mormon or not, can take a beautiful message and an inspiring story from the concert and the songs, the story that’s been told.”
Mr. Jarvis at the news conference spoke of his membership in the Church of England, where he served as an acolyte in his teens, assisting the priest with ritual “which was very interesting and inspiring, although probably it gave me a sense of theatricality as well, because it wasn’t long after that that I wanted to become an actor.”
He said that people in England, whether Anglican, Catholic or some other faith, when they see the PBS broadcast or view of DVD recordings of the concert will be inspired “to see what the choir is doing, what Mack Wilberg is doing, what we are all helping to contribute to, and how uplifting it is for all of us.”
As in previous years, the concert was recorded for broadcast over PBS stations and for distribution on CD and DVD next year.