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‘Absolutely magical’: Christmas concert guest artists share about performing with the Tabernacle Choir

Christmas concert guest artists actor Lesley Nicol on being on stage with the Tabernacle Choir and singer/actor Michael Maliakel says how this compares to being on Broadway

In Broadway’s “Aladdin,” Michael Maliakel flies on a magic carpet over the New Amsterdam Theatre. 

“Most of the singing happens when you’re fully out of breath or dancing or sword fighting or whatever it might be, so that presents its own challenges,” Maliakel said of playing the title role of Aladdin during a press event on Friday, Dec. 15. “It’s nice to just stand still and sing some beautiful music.”

This year, he and British actor Lesley Nicol are the guest artists for The Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra and Bells at Temple Square’s 2023 Christmas concerts. The first rehearsal with the choir and orchestra and Maliakel was Tuesday. Nicol’s first rehearsal with the choir and orchestra was on Wednesday. Their first of three performances was Thursday, Dec. 14. 

“I can’t believe I’m doing this, honestly,” he said. “It feels really, really special.”

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Performing in with the choir, orchestra

Nicol said that being on stage with the musicians and performers has been a unique experience. 

“I feel it’s just the most exquisite thing to be standing next to, because the music is so glorious and the singing is so glorious. I’m kind of in a warm bath,” Nicol said.

During the concert, she narrates the story of author Victor Hugo, and his wife, Adele Hugo, as they began reaching out and hosting dinners, including a Christmas banquet, for needy children in their home.

Michael O. Leavitt, Mack Wilberg, Lesley Nicol, Michael Maliakel and Ron Gunnell in the Conference Center.
Michael O. Leavitt, left, president of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Mack Wilberg, music director of the Choir, Lesley Nicol, Michael Maliakel and Ron Gunnell, Global Envoy to the Choir Presidency, speak about Temple Square’s 2023 Christmas concert at the Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Choir director Mack Wilberg said they’ve been waiting for a few years to share Hugo’s story “for the right moment.” 

There’s a creative team behind the concerts, including creative director David Warner and associate director Ryan Murphy. The story includes both English and French, and several of the songs on the program are French carols, including the opening processional, “Sing We Now of Christmas” and “Noe! Noe!”; the organ solo of “To the Cradle Run” and the traditional finale of “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”   

The concert opens with the choir members walking up to the stage as they sing the opening number, “Sing We Now of Christmas.” 

As she watched the rehearsals, Nichol said that “the opening of this show is absolutely mind-blowing. … It is beautiful. And the choir comes and walks past you, it’s so theatrical. I can’t believe there’s hundreds of people walking by me.” For a moment, the audience can hear an individual singers’ voice as they walk in. “It’s absolutely magical.”

Lesley Nicol speaks about performing with the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square
Lesley Nicol speaks about performing with the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s 2023 Christmas concert at the Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Wilberg said that part of the set is designed to be like bridges that Hugo would see when looking out of his home on the isle of Guernsey. They used those bridges, or ramps, to bring some of the choir members down and then they went back up to their seats, and to being a unified unit. 

Both Maliakel and Nichol said they felt the hospitality and welcome from the choir throughout the while process, 

Maliakel sings several songs including “God Help the Outcasts” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Joy to the World” and “I Wonder as I Wander.” 

“To get to sing the songs with arrangements that were made for me by some of the most talented arrangers in the world. I mean, that’s, that’s pretty surreal,” Maliakel said. “It’s a strange feeling to sing the songs that are so familiar in these extraordinary circumstances.

“It will be hard to top Christmas after this Christmas,” he said.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square perform in the Conference Center with Christmas on either side of the stage and projected around the pipes.
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square perform during their annual Christmas concerts at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Hearing the choir sing

Maliakel’s mother put him in their church choir when he was 8 years old and he was “hooked from onwards.”

He watched the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra’s Christmas special on PBS growing up. 

“Their specials were a crucial part of Christmases in my family growing up,” he said. He was introduced to singers who would become role models and inspired his own career, including Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald and Renee Flemming.

Michael Maliakel speaks about performing with the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square
Michael Maliakel speaks about performing with the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s 2023 Christmas concert at the Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“The Tabernacle Choir sets the standard for what’s possible with choral music,” he said.

He sang and toured with the American Boychoir School for four years — and the group sang in the Salt Lake Tabernacle the year after he graduated and when one of his brothers was still in the choir. “I just missed it and I’ve been sore about it since.” 

Now, 20-plus years later, he’s performing across the street from the Tabernacle in the Conference Center. 

“The first time walking into this space was breathtaking. I mean, it is unlike any other space that I’ve performed in,” Maliakel said of the Conference Center. 

Nicol said that she had previously heard of the Tabernacle Choir before the invitation to be in the Christmas concert. 

“Only when I was asked to join this year did I start really delving in and listening to them and became an uber superfan very quickly,” she said. 

When Nichol, known for her role as Mrs. Patmore, the cook on “Downton Abbey,” was invited to be a narrator, she talked to Hugh Bonneville, who was Lord Grantham in “Downton Abbey” and was the narrator in the 2017 concert. 

“He said, ‘You’ve got to do this’,” Nichol said. Bonneville had previously talked to Martin Jarvis, who was in the 2015 Christmas concert. Martin told Bonneville, who relayed it Nicol that, “You will never do anything like this in your career.” 

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Family at the concert

Nicol also talked to her brother, who has lived in South Carolina for several decades, about the Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert. He had been trying to get tickets through the random selection process for years and hadn’t been successful. “I said, ‘Oh, well, I think I can arrange that.’” 

During the concert, she gives a personal message to him, who will be watching the concert on Friday and Saturday with his wife and their daughter. 

Maliakel’s parents, in-laws, brother and cousins came in town for the performance. His father recently had treatments for prostate cancer and is healthy enough for the trip. 

“It’s not lost on me how special it is that he’s here and healthy,” he said. 

Maliakel, whose parents are from India, added that to “be able to present music that speaks to so many people is really important to me. To be able to represent people that look like me that might not have as much exposure on these stages, I feel like is also huge.”

Mike Leavitt, president of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Mack Wilberg, music director of the choir, Lesley Nicol, Michael Maliakel and Ron Gunnell, global envoy to the choir presidency, speak about the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s 2023 Christmas concert at the Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

‘To love is to act’

Both Maliakel and Nichol hope that people who attend the concert are motivated to act and help others. 

In the story Nichol narrates, she shares how Hugo writes, “To love is to act.” 

“I think it’s such an important message that actually what you do is what matters,” she said. 

Maliakel said, “I hope it inspires people to think more about that, think less about the things that make us different from one another and more about the ways that we are all similar.  I think inspiring some kind of humanity is just to just reach out to people that have less than you and that generosity is so entrenched in the story.” 

Last year and next year’s Christmas concerts

This year’s PBS special, “Season of Light,” is based on the 2022 Christmas concert and is expected to be viewed by more than 3 million people. This year, it’s being broadcast in London, England, and in the Philippines for the first time, choir President Michael O. Leavitt announced. That will effectively double the number of people who see it. The choir’s next tour in February is to the Philippines. 

It will air multiple times on PBS and BYUtv and will be streamed on both platforms. 

“So 6 million people throughout the world will receive a special gift of peace and healing,” President Leavitt said. 

Wilberg said: “We’re already thinking about next year. So it continues.” 

Michael O. Leavitt, Mack Wilberg and Lesley Nicol speak about the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s 2023 Christmas concert.
Michael O. Leavitt, president of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Mack Wilberg, music director of the choir, and Lesley Nicol speak about the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s 2023 Christmas concert at the Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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