For nearly a decade, each annual Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert has been recorded for nationwide presentation the following year over PBS stations. This year's event began with an announcement about the program's pre-eminence in the yuletide market.
"It gives me great pleasure tonight to announce that this program has become the number-one-rated entertainment program on PBS during the holidays, with more than 4 million Americans tuning in to watch it each year," said Paula Kerger, PBS president.
She flew in from Washington D.C. to make the announcement at the Thursday night dress rehearsal of the concert, an event which, in its own right, drew a near-capacity audience in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. The main performances will be tonight and Saturday.
The PBS recording of the concert, which also features the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Bells on Temple Square, originates with member station KUED in Salt Lake City.
"Through this program millions of Americans have witnessed what PBS does best," Ms. Kerger said, "and that is to use the magic of television to showcase music, dance and the spoken word to inspire and entertain like nothing else can. And remarkably, just like the price of your admission ticket, it's broadcast free to millions of people, many of whom in these turbulent times are in dire need of a holiday cheer and sparkle that Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir provides."
British actress Jane Seymour and operatic baritone Nathan Gunn are the guest artists for this year's concert.
An elaborate stage set with stone castle towers, stained-glass windows and flocked evergreens hinted at what would be the program's opening processional. It featured young dancers in red-and-gold medieval costumes performing to "Sing Forth This Day," a composition by the choir's musical director Mack Wilberg.
"'Once upon a time': That's how the stories of Christmas begin," Miss Seymour said in her opening narration. "'The Little Match Girl,' 'The Drummer Boy,' these are the stories that remind us no matter how things seem to be, everything is possible at Christmas. And so we begin. Once upon a time, from castles and cottages across the land, the people of the earth gather to rejoice."
Later in the program, Miss Seymour gave the legend of "Good King Wenceslas," accompanied by the choir performing Brother Wilberg's arrangement of that well-known Christmas song.
In the program's climax, a sublime rendition by the choir and orchestra of "Silent Night" segued into Miss Seymour's recitation from Luke 2 of the story of the birth of Jesus, followed, in keeping with tradition, by Brother Wilberg's exultant arrangement of the French carol "Angels, from the Realms of Glory."
Earlier in the program, Mr. Gunn's rich voice was showcased in "In dulci jubilo" and "Sing Lullaby!"
"Everyone you see here on stage, as well as the many people you don't see behind the stage, have been working tirelessly and giving all that they have to make this really special event, and more than anything else it's the spirit of giving that I am most thankful for," Mr. Gunn told the audience.
Reflecting on the joy of his childhood Christmases, he said, "As a father of five, I'm a little bit greedier these days and what I like most, really, is the entire season, because it gives me an opportunity to be a little bit goofy, where I'm otherwise not allowed to be." He told of donning a Santa hat and saying "ho, ho, ho until my 16-year-old gets annoyed."
Mr. Gunn performed "Mighty Lord, and King All Glorious" from "Christmas Oratorio" by Bach, among other operatic selections.
But he demonstrated the range of his repertoire with a whimsical performance of Ken Darby's musical setting for "'Twas the Night before Christmas" and a medley of "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas" and "Let It Snow!"
In keeping with tradition, the Sunday broadcast of the choir's TV and radio program "Music and the Spoken Word," will feature the guest artists and selections from the Christmas concert. A "mini-concert" will follow the half-hour broadcast for those attending it live in the Conference Center.
The nationwide network broadcast begins at 9:30 a.m. and is presented locally over KSL-TV Channel 5.