Voice of venerable journalist enriches Christmas concert

For five decades, he was America's eyes and ears on major news, a trusted journalist whose staccato delivery and avuncular bearing helped viewers draw a degree of order and comprehension from the chaos of unsettling events. And Walter Cronkite's familiar voice and visage took on a Yuletide flavor Dec. 13 and 14 when he was guest narrator at the annual Christmas concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.

The former anchorman and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" was welcomed with a prolonged standing ovation from the capacity audience in the Conference Center. For one accustomed to a newsman's economy of language and frugal use of adjectives, he was effusive in his praise.

"I can't imagine a greater privilege than to be here with this orchestra and this choir," he exclaimed. He recounted that his chief of staff conveyed to him the invitation to be part of the program and asked if he thought he could do it. "I said, 'Think I could do it? I'm on my way!' "

"My parents, I think, were among the very first people 73 years ago who were tuned in to the Sunday broadcast [of the choir] with an old crystal set," he said, "and they became faithful listeners throughout the radio years. I sat with them and also admired the wonderful musicianship of this marvelous organization. And I quite think that they are tonight incredibly proud of what 'little Walter' ended up doing in being in front of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."

Music director Craig Jessop shared with the audience the little-known fact that the famous broadcaster "is also a conductor. He has appeared with the United States Marine Corps Band, and we thought that he should appear with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as well."

Walter Cronkite delivers war-story narrative.
Walter Cronkite delivers war-story narrative. Credit: Photo by Gerry Avant

Mr. Cronkite was then presented with a baton engraved with his name and etched with the facade of the Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ. With that baton, he was invited to conduct the choir and orchestra in a surprise rendition of the famous "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. This the newsman did with a polish that belied his non-professional status as a conductor.

Later, the segment of the program narrated by Mr. Cronkite seemed suited for his background as a professional observer of 20th century events. Repeated Dec. 15 during the choir's Sunday morning nationwide broadcast, it recalled the Christmas of 1914, when World War I soldiers were lined up in trenches along a battle line at Flanders Field in Belgium with British, French and Belgian forces opposing German troops, and the peace that prevailed as opposing soldiers sang and exchanged gifts. (Click here for excerpts from the narration.)

To illustrate Mr. Cronkite's narrative, a plaintive duet by two costumed soloists sang the English and German words to "Silent Night" in counterpoint, with the men of the choir joining in on later verses. During the singing, photos from World War I showing relatives of choir and orchestra members were displayed on the large television screens in the Conference Center.

The choir and orchestra illustrated the story with an overlapping blend of those and other seasonal songs of Europe, including "Gloria" and "O Tannenbaum."

Reminiscent of his "that's the way it was" sign-off line on the CBS Evening News, Mr. Cronkite concluded his narration by saying: "And that's the way it was one Christmas almost a hundred years ago. And that's the way it can be as we embrace the message of that silent, holy night."

Then came the climax of the evening with the choir and orchestra performing "Angels from the Realms of Glory." Starting softly, it crescendoed into a broad, exultant wall of sound complete with organ and hand-held bells in various pitches and sizes being rung by choir members.

In highlights from other segments of the concert, the choir and orchestra presented three contrasting settings for the words "Glory to God in the Highest" by G. B. Pergolesi, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Ron Nelson, and performed the Irving Berlin favorite, "White Christmas," with the lush orchestra accompaniment sounding like a 1940s movie score.

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