The 2019 Christmas with the Tabernacle Choir concert opened with no choir.
The stage was lit with Christmas trees and a family farmhouse setting, and members of the Orchestra at Temple Square were in place, but the choir loft was empty.
At Mack Wilburg’s direction, the orchestra’s sound filled the Conference Center with the American folk carol “Star in the East.”
Soon, members of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square marched down the aisles of the Conference Center, each one carrying a candle in their hands. As the number carried on, they took their places in the loft, filling the stage with electric candlelight.
So began the annual Christmas concert that combined the talents of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, the Bells on Temple Square, the Gabriel Trumpet Ensemble and guest artists on Thursday, Dec. 12.
Following the German carol “In dulci jubilo” performed by the choir and orchestra, guest artist Kelli O’Hara joined the concert with “Mary’s Little Boy Child” and “The Birthday of a King.”
She then gave a gift to the audience: a performance of three Rodgers and Hammerstein songs: “A Cockeyed Optimist” from South Pacific, “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I, and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. They are a gift of “happiness, hope and the blessing of a few favorite things,” she said.
It’s a nod to her Broadway career, for which she has received seven Tony Award nominations and won Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Anna in The King and I.
In addition to her work on Broadway, O’Hara has also performed with the Metropolitan Opera and various concert halls, gaining international acclaim, and recorded two solo albums.
But the song that had the most meaning to O’Hara was “A Cradle in Bethlehem.” This Christmas lullaby has been “one of my dad’s favorites for as long as I can remember,” she said. It’s the song that immediately came to mind when Tabernacle Choir director Mack Wilburg asked her what Christmas song held special significance for her.
O’Hara was joined by renowned actor Richard Thomas, who lent his voice to narration throughout the concert and brought to life Pearl S. Buck’s story, “Christmas Day in the Morning” — a story about a boy who, in searching for the perfect gift to give his father, discovers, “The true joy of Christmas is to love and to awaken love.”
Thomas is best known for his Emmy award winning performance as John-Boy Walton in the television drama The Waltons, and has received many Golden Globe Award and Tony Award nominations for his work on screen and stage.
In a press conference Thursday morning, O’Hara described the opportunity to perform with the Tabernacle Choir as “the ultimate invitation.”
As a Broadway singer and actor, she’s seen increasingly smaller numbers in orchestras and choral ensembles. “The chance to sing in front of a live orchestra of this caliber with the voices of this enormous choir — 365 voices — led by this man,” she said, gesturing to Mack Wilburg, “I think anyone would jump at the chance. I just happened to be the lucky one this year that was asked, and I wanted to move mountains to make it work.”
Being able to perform with the Tabernacle Choir is “my Christmas present,” Thomas said during the press conference. “Christmas is my thing. I’ve driven my family crazy at Christmas for years and years, and this is the ultimate way to celebrate it.”
Thomas described the concert as astonishing when he watched the rehearsal. “But the spiritual aura of the artists, of the venue, of the intention or the seriousness of intention behind the work is really powerful and it’s just thrilling to be a part of it because I feel that I will be able to plug all of my love of Christmas into this experience.”
That love for Christmas certainly came through in his talent for storytelling. In a similar way that the family farmhouse themed setting provided a backdrop for “Christmas Day in the Morning,” Thomas’ childhood of spending summers on his father’s family farm in Kentucky gave a personal touch to the story.
“We’re just very, very honored with both of them,” Wilberg, musical director of the choir and orchestra, said of O’Hara and Thomas. “They have been a delight and actually a dream to work with.”
The concert this year reflects both of their remarkable talents, he said, “and I think that we’re going to have a beautiful, beautiful event.”
The concert also featured “Tree of Life,” a collaboration between Wilberg and David Warner. As the number began, a white tree descended from the ceiling to settle on the stage. Dancers climbed ladders to pluck the shining fruit from the snow-colored, willowy boughs, and carry them across the stage as artificial snow fell and the Bells on Temple Square added a light sparkle to the thoughtful number.
Then in keeping with the family farmhouse theme and injecting a bit of competitive fun into the concert, the bluegrass band Cold Creek played off against organist Richard Elliot in a rousing rendition of “Mashing through the Snow (Jingle Bells).”
But ultimately, the concert centered on the true reason to celebrate this season: Christ’s birth. Set before a starry blue backdrop on stage, a group of children reenacted the story of Christ’s birth as Thomas recited the account found in Luke 2.
The concert closed with “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” featuring O’Hara, the Bells on Temple Square and the Gabriel Trumpet Ensemble.
Ron Jarrett, president of the Tabernacle Choir described the annual concert as “a great blessing to the community here.”
From choir and orchestra members, to volunteer ushers, to the dancers and those sewing costumes, over 1,000 volunteers are involved in making the annual Christmas concert happen.
“They do it because they love the people,” he said.
Two more performances will be held on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13-14. While all tickets have been sold out, those who wish to wait in the standby line can go to the flagpole by the Salt Lake Tabernacle in Temple Square, and will be seated in the Tabernacle so they don’t have to wait in the cold. The concert can be viewed from the tabernacle, and overflow seating is provided in the Legacy Theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Last year’s concert featuring Kristen Chenoweth will be broadcast on the stations PBS Utah (formerly KUED) on Monday, Dec. 16, and on BYUTV on Thursday, Dec. 19.