Feature Stories

‘A gift to the Master’: 20 years of Tabernacle Choir Christmas magic

Mack Wilberg, music director of The Tabernacle Choir, and Ryan Murphy, associate music director of The Tabernacle Choir.
Jed Wells

President Gordon B. Hinckley stands before a pulpit decorated with birds-of-paradise and anthuriums, adjusting the lapels of his coat. Hands clasped in front of him, he bows his head to read from a printed talk, welcoming attendees to the October 1998 general conference.

The Tabernacle lights dim.

His gentle voice carries through the dark domed space filled with more than 5,000 listeners who sit closely together on white pine benches painted to look like oak. Some people peer around pillars to get a better view of the prophet, who says that the building, once considered large, can no longer accommodate a church of millions.

The prophet expresses his gratitude to be moving forward on a new building where more Saints can gather. It isn’t the first time the Church has required larger spaces for its growing numbers. Over 150 years earlier in 1847, the Saints’ meeting place was a simple bowery made of branches. They assembled there just 29 days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley for a Church conference, and a small choir performed at that event. In the years that followed, the Saints would build a second bowery and an adobe tabernacle, outgrowing each one in turn. In 1863, construction began on what they called the Great Tabernacle, which stands today on Temple Square.

As President Hinckley speaks in the beloved pioneer building, he discusses a new facility being built just north of Temple Square. A clip of a construction site appears on TV screens for viewers watching from their homes. The footage is blurry, but it’s evident a large structure is rising from the ground up. Cranes, building materials, and vehicles of blue and red and white are inside. As the camera zooms out, they are dwarfed by the walls rising above them, and suddenly the scope of this project is very apparent. It takes up an entire city block.

“Through the generations that lie ahead, it will ring with the voices of the prophets,” says President Hinckley of the Conference Center. “It will be primarily a house of worship. But it will also be a place of art. There will be concerts and other public offerings that will be uplifting and wholesome and spiritual. … It will be a gift to the Master.”

Looking back on the more than 20 years since President Hinckley’s talk, the Conference Center has been a gift to the Master in many ways. But every December when the nights in Salt Lake City darken early and the temperatures turn frosty, the prophet’s words take on special meaning as the building raised as a gift to the Savior holds a Christmas concert unlike any other. Fittingly, on those nights, more than 60,000 people will celebrate the gift He is to the world.

Hundreds of singers fill the choir loft. A collective hum of string, woodwind, and brass instruments permeates the room and makes the chattering audience quiet. All around, Christmas trees twinkle and evergreen boughs drip over the stage. It is nothing short of magic.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square during its opening Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, December 13, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The walls of this building have seen many a Christmas concert by The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square in the past two decades. They have witnessed world-renowned guest performers and listened to many stories over the years, including retellings about Charles Dickens, the First and Second World Wars, and, most importantly, the scriptural account in Luke 2 of the Savior’s birth. If these walls could talk, they would speak about the thousands of volunteers who have sacrificed their time, energy, and talents to bring a monumental celebration to the world each year. And they would tell you why those nights over the last 20 years have been special.

A Consecrated Concert

Between the decorations, the music, the bells, and the dancers, the Christmas concert looks effortless to a sold-out crowd. But while it may appear that way, much goes on behind the scenes that audiences would never guess. And what’s especially remarkable is that it’s almost entirely done by volunteers, says Mack Wilberg, music director of The Tabernacle Choir.

“One thing that probably makes the Christmas program unique in all the world is that … nearly 98 percent of the performers that one sees on the stage are all volunteering their time and their talents. This is something that doesn’t happen [in] other places, and particularly on the grand scale that we are able to do. That includes the Choir, the Orchestra, the Bells, and the dancers—and those are just the people who are visible,” he says.

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The Tabernacle Choir presents its annual Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, December 17, 2010.
Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

Those volunteers devote their time and talents for the benefit of others not because they have to, but because they want to, adds Ryan Murphy, associate music director of The Tabernacle Choir. “It’s because it’s something [that] they love and because they love the gospel and they want to give a gift to the community and to the world,” he says. “These people give hours and hours and hours that could be spent doing other things and they choose to consecrate in this way. I think that’s part of what makes it so beautiful,” he says.

In harmony with Wilberg’s saying that “people listen with their eyes” in addition to their ears, the Choir members memorize all their music for the Christmas concert and work on it on their own time at home. The rehearsals themselves are intense and planned down to the minute, but everyone comes well prepared. Remarkably, sometimes practices even end early.

When guest performers arrive the week of the concert, relatively little time is spent rehearsing with them. Besides a piano rehearsal with the guest artist and the conductors, there is just one evening practice with the Choir and Orchestra; the next night, it’s showtime. But they’re all accustomed to the fast pace.

“We don’t have the luxury of a lot of rehearsal. But we’re used to that because the Choir and the Orchestra perform close to 300 pieces a year on only one rehearsal a week,” says Wilberg. “And that is not to say that it’s easy, but we are used to working fast and we’re used to producing music on a high level from week to week.”

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Natalie Cole performs with the Tabernacle Choir's Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The dedication of everyone involved is not lost on the guest performers. From Natalie Cole commenting on how one would think the Choir and Orchestra were being paid “big money” to pull off what they do to operatic baritone Nathan Gunn “singing” the volunteers’ praises during the concert, many have been impressed by the commitment of those who make the evening happen.

But there is one reason above all that makes the Choir unlike any other.

“It’s the Holy Ghost that accompanies their singing that makes them different,” says Murphy. “They are set apart as musical missionaries. This is their calling. And as excellent as they are and even given the high technical level at which they perform, still there’s that extra element of the Spirit when they sing.”

It’s All About the Magic

Perhaps one of the most important elements of the Christmas concert is the creation of the program itself. Each song is carefully chosen, and both variety and familiarity are sought for each year. Wilberg discusses what he strives to achieve when selecting the music that the Choir and Orchestra perform.

“I always call it the contrast and the cohesion. They are both important. You have to have variety. But within the variety, you also have to have a form of unification that brings all the elements together,” he says.

Mack Wilberg, music director of The Tabernacle Choir, at the Christmas Concert at the Conference Center on Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

One of the ways Wilberg and Murphy bring those elements together is through writing and arranging new pieces for the Choir and Orchestra and for guest performers. For instance, in 2005, Wilberg arranged half a dozen songs for soprano Renée Fleming with the Choir and Orchestra, and in 2007 he made five new arrangements for The King’s Singers, also with orchestration.

“I got sent the PDF files, and I was at home and started printing the first one,” recalled David Hurley during a pre-concert news conference. Hurley, who sang countertenor for The King’s Singers, said the new repertoire was extensive. “It was something like 35 pages, and then the second one was about the same. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have to go out and buy more paper.’ And then I started the last one, and it was 70 pages. I had to go out and buy another printer cartridge!”

Heidi Swinton, author of America’s Choir: A Portrait of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and an occasional writer for Music & the Spoken Word, explains Wilberg’s method when he composes.

“You sit next to Mack when he’s working on a score. And you know, I never realized this before, but he doesn’t write the notes like ‘Okay, now I’ll do the soprano line, … And now I’ll do the line for the tenors, and now I’ll do a line for the flutes—’ he doesn’t do that,” she says. “He starts at the top and he does the soprano, the alto, the tenor, the bass, the violin, the viola. Note by note, he [writes] them down in a line. He can hear it in his head and how all of them move together. That’s just mind-boggling to me that he can figure that out.”

The Spectacle

What the Choir has come to know as the “wow” moment also plays an important role each year in the concerts, says Choir general manager Scott Barrick. He recalls some of his favorite moments that left the audience enchanted, like in 2012 when Tom Brokaw shared the story of Gail Halvorsen, who was nicknamed the Candy Bomber in World War II for dropping candy rations in parachutes to children.

“You have the sound of this plane going from left to right in the Conference Center and then you have parachutes coming down from the ceiling with the candy,” Barrick says. “Or one year it was a Christmas tree coming up from the floor right in front of the Choir. Another year when we told the story of Dickens’s Christmas, it was the Ghost of Christmas Past and Dickens flying across the Conference Center.”

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Parachutes fall from the ceiling of the Conference Center as Tom Brokaw tells the story of Gail Halvorsen, the "Candy Bomber," during The Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, on Friday, December 14, 2012.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

English actor John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli and was the voice of Treebeard in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, acted the Ghost of Christmas Past that Barrick fondly remembers. In a press conference the morning after a dress rehearsal, Rhys-Davies spoke about how the role was a natural fit for him.

“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.”

In fact, it’s so much fun for guests to perform with The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, it’s a career highlight for them. Kristin Chenoweth listed her 2018 performance as a top-three career moment—right along with her debut in Carnegie Hall and a solo concert at the Metropolitan Opera. And in 2006, Norwegian soprano Sissel commented about the remarkable opportunity it was to sing with the Choir.

“There are a few moments when I’m not singing, and I stand and listen to all these beautiful voices and cry,” she said following a dress rehearsal. “It has been such a fantastic moment in my life to come here, and I really feel like I’ve met a family.”

A Light in the Darkness

The Christmas concert has not only brought people together during good times—it has also been there during tragedy. This was true when actress Angela Lansbury, known for her role as Mrs. Potts in Disney’s animated movie Beauty and the Beast, performed with the Choir in 2001. While her talent on stage was undeniable, her reasons for singing may have been just as moving. Only months before, the lives of millions had been affected by the horrific events of 9/11, and so Lansbury hoped that singing would help alleviate some of the fear of that time.

Star of stage and screen Angela Lansbury sings with The Tabernacle Choir on Friday, December 7, 2001, during a Christmas Concert at the Conference Center.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“It struck me what it was that I could bring to this event,” she said, as seen in a recording of her performance. “And it was the voice that many of the children of our country have learned to recognize. You know, the attacks of the last September the eleventh have had an immeasurable impact on the minds and indeed the lives of millions of children throughout America. Their little fears and often secret terrors—they need to be addressed so very carefully. And all of us, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles—we all have to try to do everything that we possibly can to reassure these little ones that they are safe and loved and that good will triumph over evil and right will prevail.”

Just 11 years later, the Christmas concert would be a light in the darkness once again after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Friday, December 14, 2012. That same evening during the concert, Church News reported, a moment of silence was observed for the victims.

“As we gather tonight in celebration of the Christmas season, we are profoundly saddened by the heartbreaking events this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut,” said Choir announcer Lloyd D. Newell. “We grieve with all those affected by this tragedy and especially for the families of the little children. At this hour of great sorrow, we pray the Spirit of our Father in Heaven will provide comfort and peace to all.”

One of the prayers offered that night was sung as guest performer English tenor Alfie Boe performed “The Prayer” (often known as “Bring Him Home”) from Les Misérables. Eyes closed, he was completely absorbed by the music and didn’t even notice when he received a standing ovation.

“It’s one of those songs that I lose myself in, because it’s so emotional for me,” he said during a press conference. “By the end of the song, I’m in my own world; I’m still sort of praying those words, still saying, ‘Bring him home,’ even after that last note is finished.”

Last year, the Choir wasn’t able to perform at Christmas due to the pandemic and the Christmas concert for 2021 has also been canceled. But in the meantime, Wilberg, Murphy, and others have brought Christmas to people in other ways. For instance, this past year they helped produce 20 Years of Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir, a new DVD narrated by previous guest performer Brian Stokes Mitchell. The footage shows highlights from the last two decades of Christmas concerts and behind-the-scenes glimpses of what it takes to produce the concert each year.

The Choir is also releasing a new Christmas Best CD and a commemorative book, Keepsake Christmas Stories: Holiday Favorites as Performed with The Tabernacle Choir, which tells 13 stories from the guest narrators for the Christmas concerts throughout the years.

► You may also like: Tabernacle Choir’s 2021 Christmas concert plans announced

“It’s actually been a very busy … time,” says Wilberg. “It has been good to be able to do some projects that we may not have been able to do under normal circumstances. So there have been some silver linings in all of this.”

If History Could Talk

From the time when Latter-day Saints saw a bird’s-eye view of the Conference Center construction from a screen in 1998, it was evident how massive the building would become. The structure was unlike anything the Church, which had just over 10 million members (compared with more than 16.5 million today), had ever seen before. But now, many Latter-day Saints are accustomed to its size. For the guest performers who visit at Christmastime, though, the main auditorium, which is large enough to fit a Boeing 747 airplane, can be astonishing.

“When they first walk into the room, they’re just overwhelmed. And in fact, we’ve had at least one or two guest artists drop to their knees when they’ve walked in because they’re so overwhelmed by the size and the massiveness of the space,” says Wilberg. “But really, once you start working in the room itself, the massiveness of the space kind of disappears in a rather unusual way. And it doesn’t seem nearly as big as it really is.”

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English actor Hugh Bonneville narrates during The Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert in Salt Lake City on Thursday, December 14, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

British stage actor Hugh Bonneville, who played Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley, in Downton Abbey and Henry Brown in the movie Paddington, spoke with the press in 2017 about how this was the case for him.

“Stepping on the stage of the 21,000-seat Conference Center arena is overwhelming but, at the same time, feels like home,” he said. “And I think that’s what the expression of this concert is all about: creating an atmosphere that is both huge in scale but is intimate in content.”

Both Wilberg and Murphy believe that people feel connected in the space for a number of reasons: Nothing blocks the view, giving the audience a more personal experience, and large screens on the walls help people feel closer to what’s on stage. But there’s also something about the building itself.

“It’s a consecrated, set-apart building and there is a special feeling there and a special sense of connection with the audience … there are no supports or pillars or columns in the way, but it is unique to have an auditorium of that size and scope where a performer does not feel like they get lost in it and where the audience feels like they can connect. All I can say is that I think it was probably divine providence that had a role in creating that space,” Murphy says.

In that space, the past 20 years of Christmases with The Tabernacle Choir have been captured on camera. The walls themselves were filmed as they were built. But if a camera had been recording all that had happened before that time—if it had footage from before the days when world-famous performers flew in to sing with the Choir, and if it had caught the years before there was a Conference Center or a Temple Square or a Tabernacle, it would show a very different picture.

It would show that small group of faithful Saints in 1847 who had just entered the Salt Lake Valley and were about to sing beneath a bowery made of branches, surrounded by sagebrush. Those pioneers could never have imagined what the Choir would become. If they could talk to us today, though, and if they could sit within the walls of the Conference Center and see the Choir in action, Swinton says they would be amazed.

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The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square perform for an annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City on Thursday, December 15, 2011.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I think they would look at the dancers coming down the aisle and the Orchestra—you know, they’d be lucky if they had two or three violins, maybe a piano, and … they’d look at all of the things that we have, all of the microphones, and the lights, and the setting, and the seats, and the expanse in the Conference Center with no pillars … and be absolutely awestruck by how far it had come in terms of a setting from a bowery covered with brush.

“But I think the music would be familiar to them. … And they would join in and sing with that music. Because it’s always about the music connecting us to the heavens, giving us greater strength and greater ability to carry on. And though we don’t have to live in wagons and beat down the crickets and struggle to get potatoes to grow, we have our own set of problems. We have our own set of issues and that was shown [to us during] the pandemic. The singing of the Choir [brings] a light and a sense of encouragement and a sense of strength into people’s lives today just like [the] singing of those very rough-edged choirs did in the beginning. … It connects us because it is really all about helping us feel closer to the divine.”

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