Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert

December 17, 2009 | 19 comments
By
Eric in front of the set after the final performance Sunday.

Eric in front of the set after the final performance Sunday.

[Choir policy keeps members from posting or blogging about the Choir before and even during events.  Here I am sharing only some very general information about the concert after it is over. Although I will respond to comments, I do not intend to speculate on policies, how guests are chosen, etc.]

Perhaps the most important thing that the Tabernacle Choir does is provide music for several of the session of General Conference. After that, our biannual tours rank high as perhaps our most overt and perhaps important missionary outreach. While the weekly broadcasts of Music and the Spoken Word fill a similar purpose, probably the most exciting event to participate in is our annual Christmas concert.

Since the dedication of the Conference Center almost ten years ago, the concert has reached a stunningly large audience: 21,000 for a ticketed “dress rehearsal” Thursday evening, 42,000 for the official concerts Friday and Saturday night, and then nearly another 21,000 for the Sunday morning broadcast, which includes many numbers from the concert and then is followed by a “mini-concert” that is not broadcast but includes most of the remaining repertoire. That equals about 84,000 people who are the recipients of this annual gift by the Choir and church to the community. For the past several years, some 90% of the PBS stations in the U.S. have been broadcasting the previous year’s concerts.

I first attended one of the concerts the year before I joined the Choir, when Walter Cronkite was the guest. He gave a stirring reading, recounting the so-called “Christmas Miracle” of a WWI truce. My first year in in the Choir saw two vocal guests, Bryn Terfil and Fredrika von Stade. The next year, featuring Audra McDonald, was the first to see what has become a standard of the concerts, an opening processional including orchestra, Choir, dancers, and now bells.

Being part of the production means that we as singers have a different experience than guests in the hall. On the one hand, we tend to be aware of more of the challenges—problems with pitch, ensemble, energy, etc. But former Choir members who have since viewed the concert from the audience have told me that these kind of issues are rarely perceived in the house. Instead it is the overwhelming auditory and visual effect that leaves the greatest impression.

The pictures that I am including with this post do not do the set justice: they were taken with my very poor camera phone after the final performance this last Sunday. But they do give a sense of how the Conference Center rostrum is totally transformed. This year, during the big production number “Carols around the World,” a huge lighted Christmas tree arose out of the stage floor.

A huge Christmas tree was raised from under the stage at the high point of the year's concert.

A huge Christmas tree was raised from under the stage at the high point of the year's concert.

Of course, one viewing the set has no idea of the hours and hours of effort that have gone into preparing it, costumes, etc. And then there is of course the time spent by the Choir and the orchestra in preparing the music . . . although this is probably less than many people think. We performed the Mahler Second Symphony for the Tanner Gift of Music the weekend before Thanksgiving, so most of the extra rehearsals in November actually focused on that. While we ran a few songs in November, we learned, and memorized, most of the music in the two weeks before the concert. We received our final pieces the week before. The orchestra and organists were receiving music as late as Tuesday before the performance!

This year’s guests were singer Natalie Cole and David McCullough. She performed a number of her well-known Christmas arrangements, some of them backed up by the Choir. Mr. McCullough wrote a piece on the importance of music in American history that focused on his favorite Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” He wove their histories into an incident from WWII when Prime Minister Winston Churchill came to Washington right after Pearl Harbor.  The opening processional, the main production number, and the traditional closing—”Angels from the Realms of Glory”—included hundreds of children from area children’s choirs.

choir concert with children

I am biased, but regardless of how talented the guest is (and our guest Sissel a few years ago was stunning, moving, and inspiring with some of her numbers), it is some of the Choir and orchestra numbers that always move me the most. Brother Wilberg always has a traditional slot int he program, as when we sang “For Unto Us a Child is Born” from Messiah this year. Most moving to me was his arrangement of “O Holy Night.” I am almost always moved to tears when we get to the high point of the song, “Christ is the Lord, O praise his name forever!”

And this brings me to the essence of what I want to share about Christmas and music. Whether it is an almost professional concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, our ward’s little choir in our sacrament Christmas program, or my family singing carols at our evening December devotionals, music brings the spirit of the season to my heart stronger than anything else.

For (official) video interviews I have done on the Choir, see “What Singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Is Like” and “Time Commitment of the Choir.” Interviews by choir staff and other choir members can be found at http://www.mormontabernaclechoir.org/pages/Videos

Tags: ,

19 Responses to Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert

  1. Larry Beck on December 17, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    We had our Stake Christmas concert last Sunday, which consists of each ward singing something and a Stake Choir. We end with a sing along to the Hallelujah Chorus where we invite members of the audience to join us. We’ve been doing this since the Stake was created 15 years ago. I used to be a professional trumpet player in a past life (BC, before I joined the Church), and dusted off the horn almost two years ago. I asked if I and a friend could play our trumpets on the Hallelujah Chorus. For those who know something about trumpets I have a piccolo trumpet, which sounds more like the trumpets used in the day that Handel wrote the Messiah. Even though we probably had close to two hundred singing, we cut through and received many comments after the concert about how they appreciated our performance. But it wasn’t until after the concert, when my friend and I played trumpet duets on the stage while people ate their cookies. In the middle of Silent Night I felt a strong feeling of why I pulled my trumpet out of the closet after all these years. I now play to bless and hopefully bring the spirit into someone’s life, rather than when I used to play to impress. I love this time of year, the lights, music, and the opportunity to hopefully allow someone to feel the Spirit in greater measure through my meager musical offering.

  2. Julie M. Smith on December 17, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Very interesting, thank you.

    Do you know if McCullough’s remarks are available online anywhere? He’s one of my favorites; I have a Truman because I read his _Truman_.

    I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the anonymity of being part of such a large choir. Not quite sure how to articulate my thought here, except that you certainly don’t seem shy in a solo spotlight and I’m wondering how that meshes with being one small cog in a very large machine.

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 17, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    I have been watching the DVD of last year’s concert, which was broadcast last night. Just a great variety of styles, but with a distinct enthusiasm and joy that sets the tone for my Christmas.

    For me and my family, music is at the core of Christmas. Growing up, I played French Horn in junior high and high school Christmas assemblies (back before they were forbidden as being too religious). As an adult, I have sung in ward choirs and had opportunities to sing with three LDS performances of The Messiah, in Omaha, Oakland, California, and Richland, Washington. My daughter performed on the handbells with the Brighton High School bell choir in a Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert, before her teacher, Tom Waldron, formed the Bells on Temple Square.

    Like one of the audience members who was captured singing along on “Heaven’s Eyes” in this year’s PBS broadcast, I find myself singing along with the choir as I watch and listen to these wonderful performances. Thanks to the Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra on Temple Square for bringing us to our feet in appreciative joy each Christmastide. To Brother Wilberg, kam sah hamnida!

  4. Ardis Parshall on December 17, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    I’ve been fortunate enough to attend three years’ concerts. Your reporters from the house are right — the sensory experience is almost overwhelming. If you’re worried about pitch, I guarantee that I’m so busy drinking in the sparkle and motion and color along with the music that I can’t possibly notice a problem with anything. Much as I enjoy the whole effect, it’s almost a relief to have much of the motion stop for some of the choir and orchestra numbers.

    Like Julie, I’m curious as to the ups or downs about being one of so many.

  5. Eric Huntsman on December 18, 2009 at 1:13 am

    Dr. Wilberg often reminds us that choral singing is “the ultimate team sport.” A couple of years ago on tour, I was asked to report on one of our concerts, and I mentioned the feeling of being part of the fabric of a section and a choir, hearing and blending with the voices around me:

    “There are indeed many ways to worship. One of the things that Craig Jessop has talked about repeatedly is the importance of being unified in choral singing. It is an important musical skill, to be sure, but also a spiritual objective. In those wonderful moments when my own voice is completely lost in the swell of the Choir’s sound and I can ‘feel’ those singing on either side and behind me, I think of the Savior’s great Intercessory Prayer.” (http://ldsmag.com/music/050718sanjose.html)

    This actually has been a very instructive and personally refining thing for me. As a teacher and a public speaker, I am very used to being front and center. After a stint in priesthood leadership (the usual elders quorum president, high priest group leadership, bishopric, and then bishop) I was used to leading. The (relative) silence of my temple service and being a single cog in the great machine of the Choir has been good for my soul.

  6. Eric Huntsman on December 18, 2009 at 1:18 am

    For those who did not see the links to video interviews that I added late Thursday night, go back to the main post.

  7. Ariel on December 18, 2009 at 1:24 am

    The concert was stunning. I went with a convert friend who is now inactive, and she felt the Spirit strongly- she has decided to start coming to church again. She also mentioned that she’s been to several Broadway shows and she thinks this performance was better. :) We were both moved to tears during O Holy Night, and Angels From the Realms of Glory was also spectacular. Thank you so much for a beautiful performance.

  8. m&m on December 18, 2009 at 3:47 am

    I love your thoughts on being part of the whole. I sang in a choir a few years ago where that theme was a focus and it really had an impact on me…a larger lesson for my life, really.

    Thank you for sharing a glimpse of this concert here.

  9. Clean Cut on December 18, 2009 at 11:25 am

    “music brings the spirit of the season to my heart stronger than anything else.”

    Amen.

    Some of my most favorite and moving spiritual memories are owed to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and specifically to Mack Wilberg’s arrangements.

  10. Mark B. on December 18, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Speaking of choral music being the ultimate team sport, I was impressed (again) with the singing of the “For Unto Us a Child is Born” at the Christmas devotional.

    How on earth does a group that large sing those runs of 16th notes with such clarity!?

  11. Eric Huntsman on December 18, 2009 at 11:55 am

    “How on earth does a group that large sing those runs of 16th notes with such clarity!?”

    We cheat. Half the section singing a melisma actually is singing “do-do-do-do” while the other half is doing the straight vowel. The other trick is to make sure that we accent the first note of every measure, just as conductor would emphasize the downbeat with a good ictus.

    I think more to the point in a song such as “For Unto Us a Child is Born” is the shaping of lines. Dr. Wilberg is constantly pushing us to sing through melodic lines, swelling to the high point rather than singing note-by-note. Dr. Jessop has a similar emphasis, and he was the one who had earlier turned the Choir around in that regard. He used to always talk about singing “strong-weak, strong-weak” or taking care on two and three syllable words to not put equal emphasis on each.

    There are some funny results of this kind of training. I am the only person in my ward who sings hymns “strong-weak, strong-weak” and swells on phrases. Of course, I already stick out in my ward (or the ward I visit for my “pick-up sacrament meeting” when my Choir schedule causes me to miss my meetings). This just makes me sound even more different!

  12. Dave on December 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Very interesting, Eric. Every Mormon knows about the Choir, but very few know any of the details … until now! I’ve never seen one of the Christmas concerts live. I’ll obviously have to remedy that next year.

  13. Hunter on December 18, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Thanks for this. And thanks for the reminder that the common spitirual theme for so many of us during Christmas — whether professional or volunteer — is the sacred music.

    I’m glad to hear that you have worked through that feeling of being inconsequential in such a large ensemble. In my experience, singing in a choir of more than about 80 voices becomes a frustrating thing because when there are so many voices, my individual voice seems to make no difference. But, you obviously have worked through that. And having high caliber singers and directors certainly makes a difference!

    My question relates to this issue of largeness: How in the world can you hear (and stay with) the Orchestra when they are So. Far. Away. In both the Tabernacle and the Conference Center, the Orchestra appears to be about a half a football field in front of you. I don’t understand how you can function as a group. But you obviously do. Is the Orchestra miked back to you guys? (And which building is easier to sing in? The Tabernacle with its live — but erratic — acoustic, or the Conference Center with its cavernous black hole?)

  14. Eric Huntsman on December 19, 2009 at 12:30 am

    Singing in the Tabernacle is completely different from singing in the Conference Center. The amazing, although sometimes quirky, acoustics of the older building make hearing the orchestra easier. In the Conference Center all of the sound is electronically reproduced and balanced. We have monitors (speakers) positioned around the loft, which enable us to hear not only the orchestra but the rest of the Choir (without electronic amplification, we could literally not hear the women across the loft).

    The distance between the conductor and the Choir is an issue, but surprisingly one that we adjust to rather easily or at least intuitively. We just learn to focus on the tiny little figure directing so far away. And the orchestra knows that it cannot be quite on top of the director’s beat because the Choir will always be a bit behind it due to the distance. This familiarity is one of the reasons that even professional orchestras just cannot rival our own orchestra when it comes to accompanying us on our own turf (the other reason is that I maintain that they play with the spirit as much as we try to sing with it!).

    As to your question, the Tabernacle is easier AND preferred. The only thing the Conference Center has over our home building is the excitement of such a large audience. Well, also air conditioning in the summer!

  15. Matt W.'s wife on December 19, 2009 at 1:25 am

    The thing I like most about singing with choirs is the ability it gives you to be more than yourself. Your sound is greater in emotional and spiritual power. There is almost an electrifying feeling in creating music with someone else. There is a beauty in feeling your voice meld into someone elses to make a better sound than your own individually. You couple that with a true exertion towards and an attitude of praise to God, and a power accompanies it. There is no better feeling for me in worship than singing Mack Wilberg’s arrangements with a group of Saints when not just musically, but spiritually we have reached the climax together. Choral music just rocks.

  16. m&m on December 19, 2009 at 4:10 am

    The thing I like most about singing with choirs is the ability it gives you to be more than yourself.

    Hard not to think of the line, “And saints and angels sing.”

  17. Alison Moore Smith on December 20, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Good stuff, Eric. Now could you please speculate on policies and how guests are chosen?

  18. Eric Huntsman on December 20, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    “Now could you please speculate on policies and how guests are chosen?” Not if I want to keep my Choir insurance policy current! People ask why I look so happy singing in the broadcast—it is because I am not scoutmaster and not on the high council!

  19. Jared Kelley on December 23, 2009 at 1:39 am

    Having been in your ward towards the end of your stint as Bishop, I can attest that you did stick out during the hymns, but in a good way. I must say that I enjoyed that rendition of “O Holy Night.” I fact, I probably listened to it 10 times consecutively (internet replay can be great). Can you tell me, is there a recording of this rendition for sale? Thanks