What Does It Take to Pull Off the Gigantic Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir?

Holiday Coverage   What Does It Take to Pull Off the Gigantic Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir?
 
Behind the scenes of the 90-year holiday concert tradition.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square (previously known as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir) is an institution and an anomaly. There is no other choir in America of this size with as wide a reach for as many years. Approximately 360 singers perform a weekly international broadcast Music & the Spoken Word, the longest continuous broadcast on air that began in 1929. The Choir has performed at World Fairs and Presidential Inaugurations. But nothing more quintessentially encapsulates the Choir, its spirit, and its musicality than the annual Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir concert that emerges each December in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The production is so massive that the 2019 concert, which features guest appearances by Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara and Tony Award nominee Richard Thomas, airs this December (as Kristin Chenoweth’s 2018 concert aired in 2019, Sutton Foster and Hugh Bonneville’s 2017 concert aired in 2018, etc.).

Talent of O’Hara and Thomas’ caliber (and their predecessors) jump at the chance to sing with the Choir because of their unparalleled sound and technique. Both come from music director Mack Wilberg. “He's the genius behind all that we do. He's got the talent, he knows the music, he's got the vision. It's really the man that makes the music,” says Choir President Ron Jarrett of Wilberg.

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Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir © 2020 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

“It takes a tremendous amount of discipline and people don't realize. They think that you just stand up and you sing,” says Wilberg. Choir members commit to a rigorous rehearsal schedule; they have to since they only rehearse a piece of music three times before singing on air. But the Christmas special is a highlight and an extra challenge. In a space that seats 21,000, the hardest part is singing together. “The singers from one side to the other and from the back of the choir to the front of the choir, it's hard to hear each other,” Wilberg says.

And yet, there are things only a choir of this size can do. He says, “It takes 360 voices to really, what you would call, create a wall of sound. A small choir can't do that.”

But the Christmas special is so much more than just the choir. The evening opens with a performance by Bells on Temple Square, an ensemble of hand bell musicians that suddenly makes the yearning in the song “Silver Bells” make sense. Over 100 dancers float through aisles and soar onstage. The sets, the costumes, the falling snow, this isn’t just a concert. Prepare yourself for poetry, choreography, spectacle, orchestrals, and storytime.

It’s also not just about Christmas.

While the Choir is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and members of the choir are members of the church, the evening isn’t about religious dogma. (Take it from this Jewish woman who was profoundly moved.) “It is a matter of sharing wonderful music with people everywhere because music makes such a difference in their life,” says Jarrett. “All the discord that you hear in all the uprisings and all the bad stuff, if you will, can be placated with someone feeling a little bit more at peace with themselves and with their environment. Music does that for people.”

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Kelli O'Hara © 2020 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

“The message of the words always has to play a really important role in what the Choir does,” says Wilberg. “‘One Person’ by Jerry Herman that is just perfect for us because it talks about the difference one person can make in the world. Whether it be ‘The Impossible Dream’ or ‘Climb Every Mountain’ I should say that Broadway music, that ilk, plays a huge role on our repertoire.”

And a huge role in choosing guest artists.

“When we have someone with a Broadway background, I usually know that it's going to be pretty smooth sailing because that's just what they do,” says Wilberg. “They can just come in and hit the mark right from the top because they are so seasoned. They're just troopers in the very best sense of the word. It really does make a big difference.”

It also makes a big difference to the song choice and story choice. Wilberg flew out to New York to meet with O’Hara and Thomas. The repertoire of the December 14 broadcast is very much a reflection of these performers’ sensibilities and collaboration—mixing songs from O’Hara’s Broadway appearances with a fable Thomas personally cherishes. The efforts of thousands of people accumulate to an atmosphere of joy and generosity. The aura will awe as much as it delights, you will beam as much as you tear up. As Wilberg says with a wink, “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

Watch Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir December 14 on PBS and BYUtv. Check your local listings and streaming options.

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