SALT LAKE CITY — When former CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite participated in a Christmas concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 2002, he was impressed with the huge 21,000 seat LDS Conference Center. Scott Barrick, general manager of the choir, said that Cronkite commented that "being in the Conference Center was a thrill in a thrill-filled life."
Cronkite had come to Salt Lake City to narrate a 20-minute story about Christmas in World War I during the Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert.
Every year Cronkite hosted the Vienna New Year's Concert featuring the Vienna Philharmonic. Those concerts were broadcast on PBS.
He spoke to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir music director at the time, Craig D. Jessop, and told him, "Craig, you should own Christmas like Vienna does New Year's."
Cronkite is not the only person who has been smitten with the Conference Center and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Christmas music. Photo historian Ron Fox has gathered photographs of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in their full Christmas concert glory.
"The choir has always done Christmas concerts," Barrick said. "Having a guest was not a new concept, but (with the 2000 opening of the Conference Center) it became possible to take these guest artists and do a show in a very different way. There is nothing like the Conference Center for size and scope."
Barrick said that the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley wanted the Conference Center to be used not only for LDS Church conferences, but also for large productions in the community.
For 11 years, the Mormon Tabernacle Christmas concerts have done just that, bringing world-class talent to the Conference Center:
2000: Singer Gladys Knight and actress Roma Downey
2001: Actress Angela Lansbury
2002: Walter Cronkite
2003: Singers Frederica von Stade and Bryn Terfel
2004: Broadway singer Audra McDonald and actor Peter Graves
2005: Opera singer Renee Fleming and actress Claire Bloom
2006: Norwegian singer Sissel
2007: British a cappella group the King's Singers
2008: Broadway singer Brian Stokes Mitchell and actor Edward Herrmann
2009: Singer Natalie Cole and historian David McCullough
2010: Singer David Archuleta and actor Michael York
The year after Cronkite's suggestion and after the 2003 Christmas concert with Frederica von Stade and Bryn Terfel, choir officials told local PBS station KUED about their desire to have a strong presence at Christmas time and in particular to be broadcast on Christmas Eve. The von Stade concert was broadcast on PBS the next year in 2004. "Each year it has been better and better," Barrick said. "We have coverage well into the high 90 percent of all PBS households and stations across the country.
"Some of the years we have just one artist, but most of the years we have a narrator," Barrick said. He said the singers and narrators are always happy to work together. "The nice thing is they don't really compete because one sings and one narrates and they each have their separate parts in the show and then they are both on together with our traditional finale, which is 'Angels, From the Realms of Glory.'"
The Natalie Cole concert from 2009 is the concert being broadcast this season. "The way PBS pays compliments is by scheduling additional airings," Barrick said. PBS added an extra showing the night after its first broadcast last week. The concert will also be on Christmas Eve and on Christmas — with an afternoon showing of the 2008 Brian Stokes Mitchell concert.
"I've always felt that the Lord's hand was in the selection of our guest stars and that we simply just had to find out who he wanted here and once we found out who he wanted here then it was easy to get them," Barrick said. "And once they get here, it's very evident that we have the right selection."
The 2010 concert with American Idol runner-up David Archuleta and narrator Michael York was no exception.
"I know there were a few raised eyebrows when some people heard that David Archuleta was coming here this year and they thought, 'Has the choir sold out?'" Barrick said. "But people will come away with a different mindset. This is a young man who has a beautiful voice."
And if you haven't heard this year's full concert with David Archuleta and Michael York, let nothing you despair. You only have to wait until next Christmas to hear it on DVD, CD or PBS.