With singing, instrumental music, bells and trumpets, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square returned to the Conference Center this week for their Christmas performance after it was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bells at Temple Square and the Gabriel Trumpet Ensemble also performed.
An audience of about 4,000 people, who were masked and socially distanced, were in the 21,000-seat Conference Center each evening, including family and friends of the performers, and Church and local leaders. The concert is being recorded to be broadcast next Christmas on PBS and BYUtv.
“We see the Christmas concert as a gift to the world,” choir president Mike Leavitt said in an interview Friday, Dec. 17, prior to the evening performance. “Last year, we didn’t perform and it was a loss — not just to the choir, but to people who depend on it to be part of that Christmas.”
The hour-long Celtic-themed concert broadcast taping, titled “On This Day, Earth Shall Ring,” featured actor Neal McDonough and singer and actor Megan Hilty. McDonough, who danced a few steps of an impromptu Irish jig during Friday evening performance, shared about his Irish Catholic upbringing and a few Christmas symbols from Ireland during his narration.
“The importance of what this all means to me because it’s really telling the story of my childhood and being able to talk about my faith and my Irish heritage,” he said Friday afternoon.
’Christmas With The Tabernacle Choir’
The Celtic theme came through from the musical sections to the stone pointed gothic arches, several with candles in the windows. Trees and greenery dotted the stage and a giant wreath hung from the ceiling.
During “A Celtic Christmas,” an Irish Jig on “In dulci jubilo,” organist Richard Elliott was joined by a fiddler, penny whistler and a bodhran drummer for a fast-paced tune that required some quick feet on the organ pedals.
Hilty, who is known for her portrayal of Ivy Lynn in NBC’s musical drama “Smash” and is also a Tony nominee, said she was delighted to be singing several different styles of music.
She sang “Christmas is Coming, So Deck the Halls” that had an upbeat, jazzy feel to it. A medley about home and family ranged from upbeat and festive with “Round and Round the Christmas Tree” and “Home for the Holidays” with the slower-paced “A Place Called Home” from “A Christmas Carol” musical in between.
She’s been singing “A Place Called Home” for years and always dedicates it to her husband, Brian Gallagher, as he’s “what home means to me.”
Her voice soared in the carols of “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Come to Him This Holy Night” and “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”
The Bells at Temple Square and Gabriel Trumpet Ensemble joined the choir and orchestra for several songs, including the medieval carol “On This Day, Earth Shall Ring,” the French carol Masters in the Hall” and the closing “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”
The choir also sang the lullaby-like “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head.”
Celebrating Irish roots
Both Hilty and McDonough have Irish heritage. Hilty has Swiss and Irish heritage on her father’s side and her husband’s grandparents are from Ireland.
“I’m actually finding out through this program that a lot of the traditions that we have throughout the years actually stem from these Irish traditions,” she said in an interview before the concert. One is having a lit candle in the window as a symbol of a safe place for Mary and Joseph to stay, she added.
During the concert, the mother of two shared how they decorate for Christmas in November around her anniversary and how she makes a cheesy potato casserole on Christmas.
Hilty performed with the Tabernacle Choir and Utah Symphony in 2019 in a concert — also featuring Brian Stokes Mitchell — to commemorate the Golden Spike anniversary.
“That was the first time I got to experience the conference center and its magnitude and the glorious voices of the choir,” she said.
The words she used to describe her experience with the Christmas concert were “magical” and “gratitude.”
“I’ve been so filled with joy the whole time that I’ve been here,” she said. “Every single person that I’ve worked with is not only excellent musicians but also just warm and kind and caring and everything.”
McDonough’s parents are Irish and came to the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and many in his extended family are also from Ireland. His wife, Ruva, whom he met on St. Patrick’s Day, and their five children were coming in from Los Angeles for the concert Friday.
“The whole theme of the night is all about family first, me second,” McDonough said before the concert. “We’re all part of God’s family, and we’re all His children.”
McDonough was scheduled to be shooting a movie in Tucson, Arizona, this month when filming was delayed to February due to the pandemic. His schedule opened up to be able to come to Salt Lake City.
His experience with the choir has been “incredible, inspiring and humbling.”
When he was invited to be part of the Christmas concert, he asked “how many Irish Catholics have been the narrator?” The answer was “You’re the first one.”
He said he felt grateful “to speak the words about Christmas and put the Christ in Christmas again” and share how “Jesus was the ultimate gift for us.”
Planning the concert
It was in early October when choir leaders decided they could safely move forward with the Christmas concert — significantly condensing the planning process.
“We always start with the guest artists,” said Mack Wilberg, the Tabernacle Choir director. “This is one of the things that drives the direction we go.”
Wilberg wrote or arranged nine of the 15 songs performed during the concert broadcast tapings.
When he arranges a song, he writes the choral sections first to give the choir and orchestra time to rehearse. On one of the songs, Wilberg wrote the last notes on Saturday, Dec. 11, for the performance the following week. (There was also a delay in getting some of the music printed, too.)
After rehearsal on Wednesday, Dec. 16, he felt like a section needed some adjustments and made the changes to a flute and harp bridge Thursday morning — hours before the Thursday evening recording session.
Leavitt said the concert is more than an evening of entertainment. “It’s a reminder of what we celebrate in a profound and deeply spiritual way.”
Without a live Christmas concert last year to serve as the basis for this year’s television broadcast, a two-hour retrospective special titled “20 Years of Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir” — which has aired of PBS and BYUtv, with Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell as narrator — will be shown.
Resuming live performances
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tabernacle Choir paused performances in March 2020. The Tabernacle Choir resumed in-person rehearsals in late September and they sang at general conference in October.
On Oct. 24, the choir resumed live “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcasts. The choir and orchestra performed live at the First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional. Both general conference and the devotional had limited in-person attendance.
Choir officials had implemented a multi-layered strategy to resuming in-person rehearsals, including vaccinations, testing at every rehearsal and event, self-reporting and ventilation.
The strategy has been working — but not without its challenges, Leavitt said. Through the regular testing for the 360-member choir, some have unexpectedly tested positive.
“We think it’s the combination of our compliance and blessings of heaven that have kept us safe,” he said.
Since becoming the choir president in August, Leavitt said choir leaders had three goals they wanted to accomplish this year: first, to resume in-person rehearsals; second, to form the new presidency; and third, to successfully complete the Christmas concert recording.
“We’ve had our first three months, and we’re going to take a little time and a deep breath,” he said, “and then launch into what we think will be an exciting future.”
The next steps are to welcome audiences back to “Music & the Spoken Word” and plan for the choir’s delayed Heritage Tour to Europe. While there’s still uncertainty about pandemic conditions, they are cautiously moving forward with plans.
“Right now, we’re moving forward as if we will go,” he said.
Wilberg noted that he’s excited and grateful that choir, orchestra and bells ensemble as long as “everyone can be and stay healthy.”
He hopes they won’t take for granted many of the things that changed during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — including gathering together to sing.
Treasured Christmas songs
Leavitt said he had several favorite Christmas songs and noted three from a childhood family tradition. His family would make rolls on Christmas morning and deliver these “Christmas rolls” to dozens of neighbors.
They would ring the doorbell and when they opened the door, their group would sing “Silent Night.” As they left, they would sing “Joy to the World” and then “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as they passed the front gate.
“All of those have special meaning to me,” he said.
Wilberg said he didn’t have a favorite. “I won’t say that I like them all, but I like most of them.”
For Hilty, “The Christmas Song,” which begins with “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are two of her favorites.
In the last couple of years, with social distancing and other pandemic precautions, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has had added meaning, especially the lyrics of “someday soon will all be together,” she said.
For McDonough, when he hears “The Christmas Song” sung by Nat King Cole, he knows it’s Christmastime. Also, since he was kid, he’s had a race with one of his brothers to see who will hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
“Hearing Christmas with Celtic music is really how I grew up,” he added.
“So when you see me on stage tonight smiling so much, you’ll realize it’s just bringing me back to when I was 5 years old listening to my relatives play their songs.”