Some insiders promised this year’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert would surpass even last year’s spectacle, which dramatized the story of World War II-era “candy bomber” Gail Halversen. Audience members will have to judge that, but one thing is certain: While last year’s show included candy dropped with parachutes, this year’s had actors floating in the air.
The aerial segment came in the second half of the program with guest artist and British character actor John Rhys-Davies, portraying the Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens’ famous novel “A Christmas Carol.” The ghost conducted Dickens himself (actor Robin Dick) above 19th century London at night (actually, the audience seated on the main level of the LDS Conference Center).
Based on the true story of how Dickens came to write the novel, the segment conveyed the message that the author himself, looking for quick earnings to make ends meet during a downturn in his writing career, created an enduring classic that has filled the hearts of millions — including Dickens himself — with the Christmas message of love and goodwill.
The entire program had a Dickens feel, with costumed dancers filling a fog-enshrouded stage during the opening segments as the choir and Orchestra at Temple Square performed the English carol “Christmas Is Coming” and conductor Mack Wilberg’s composition, “On This Merriest Christmas Day.”
Operatic soprano Deborah Voigt was the other guest artist for the concert, which opened Thursday with a public dress rehearsal and continued tonight with the first of two performances. The final performance will be Saturday at 8 p.m.
Voigt enthralled her audience with renditions of Bach’s “Magnficat” and “Et exsultavit spiritus meus,” as well as a medley of popular Yuletide tunes and a haunting performance of “Coventry Carol.”
Dancing, which has become an integral part of the concert, included a Russian ballet segment with music from Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.
The Bells on Temple Square were showcased appropriately enough with a performance of “Ring."
At a Friday morning news conference, Rhys-Davies was asked about his aerial acting.
“Well, as the (Royal Air Force) used to say, a good landing is one you can walk away from,” he joked.
“I used to fly airplanes myself, so being above the ground doesn’t worry me too much. Basically, theater or film is a dangerous industrial environment. You depend on the skills and ability of those around you to protect you .
“And you do get that wonderful, ‘Yippee!’ sort of sensation. I think it’s great fun." Turning to Voigt, he said, “You ought to try it sometime.”
“No, that’s OK, I’ll sing right here on the ground,” she said.
Both artists shared their admiration for the choir organization and for the venue in which they performed.
“I have followed this organization and this respected institution for many, many years,” said Voigt who grew up with a church choral background, as many opera performers do. “When I got the call I had been invited to participate, it was very thrilling to me.”
She said she knew she would be well taken care of when choir president Ron Jarrett and conductor Mack Wilberg traveled to meet with her personally and discussed the repertoire she might sing at the concert.
“The first time I walked in here and saw the vastness of this center, I couldn’t believe it,” she exclaimed. “You don’t get the same impression when you see it on television or in pictures.”
Hosts assured her that when the Conference Center is filled with people it feels more intimate, and that turned out to be the case, she said. Singing, dancing, the performance of the Bells on Temple Square all came together in a “miraculous way,” she added.
“I’m really feeling very, very blessed and lucky to be here, especially at this time of year and in this environment, and I’m so grateful that they invited me,” she said.
Rhys-Davies said, “It is a unique experience. This community has a natural warmth and affection and outgoing kindness and consideration. It isn’t feigned, it isn’t put on, it isn’t designed specially for visitors. It’s rooted in that central thing of good manners and natural kindness.”
He said he sometimes speaks to young people about shyness, telling them it is quite natural. “But you have to understand, it is egotism.
“You walk into a room and suddenly there's all these people there. And you think, ‘Oh, they’re all judging me; they’re looking at me.’ Turn it the other way around and think, ‘I’m walking into a room full of very shy people, and my job is to make them feel at ease and comfortable in their situation.
“That is really the root of good manners: making the people around you feel comfortable. You people have it in abundance. You have it naturally. It comes so easily for you.”
Rhys-Davies was asked about his reading of the familiar Nativity story from Luke 2, which is a customary element of the annual concert in which a guest artist invited in a given year reads the passage that year.
“What I was trying is not do a reading but tell a story,” he said. “And you run a risk: Was it over the top? Is it too close to being too theatrical? And yet how can you avoid a measure of theatricality when you’ve got 21,000 people in the house?
“You are clearly men and women of stronger faith than I have, but sometimes when you come to repeated passages you’ve heard many times in church, the freshness of it gets lost. What I was trying to do was say, ‘Look! This is an extraordinary thing. Let me tell you what happened.’ If you don’t understand this is the most extraordinary thing that has happened to any shepherd in history, then you miss the point of the story.”
A high point of the annual concert that audiences have come to anticipate is Salt Lake Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott’s solo, which always bears a unique flair. This year he melded the tune of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” with the rhythm and harmonic structure of “March of the Toys” from “Babes in Toyland.” At one point he played a passage from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” entirely with his feet on the pedals of the organ console.
The delighted audience rewarded the organist with a standing ovation.
The final performance of the concert is Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets have all been distributed, but Ruth Todd of LDS Public Affairs said would-be attendees are encouraged to take their chances in a stand-by line that forms at the north gate of Temple Square prior to the concert.
And Sunday’s live “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast by the choir and orchestra at 9:30 a.m. will include a mini-concert following the broadcast with selections repeated from the Christmas concert.
The concert is customarily recorded and edited for presentation over PBS television stations and for distribution the following year on DVD and CD.