Tradition, talent and technology: How the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is taking over Christmas

Published: Thursday, Dec. 8 2011 6:06 p.m. MST

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs with Natalie Cole during the annual Christmas concert in 2009.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Syndy Lambert was 10 years old, her mother joined the ranks of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Thanks in no small measure to the choir's annual Christmas concerts, daughter couldn't have been more enamored with her mom's decision.

"I looked forward to those (Christmas concerts) every year — that was one of my big highlights," Lambert recalled recently. "When I was in junior high and high school I would go to just about every rehearsal with my mom. … Even though it was cold outside, to come in and feel the warmth and the beauty of the songs was amazing. To hear that incredible sound the choir creates, and feel the spirit that's there — there just isn't anything like it anywhere."

Lambert's mother retired from the 360-voice choir after 20 years in 1993; the very next year, Syndy landed her own spot with the renowned singing group. For the last 17 years, she has not just savored but also starred in the choir's festive Christmas concert.

"More people are interested in this concert than any other (we do) because people love Christmas music and they love Christmas," Lambert said. "It just reaches more people."

Indeed, in recent years the Tabernacle Choir's renown has become increasingly synonymous with Christmas. The biggest catalyst for the groundswell was the decision starting in 1995 to morph the choir's annual holiday concert into a "Christmas With the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" television broadcast shown nationwide by hundreds of PBS affiliate stations. A straightforward formula fuels the broadcast's popularity and, by extension, extends the choir's Christmastime reach: consistently adding layers of cutting-edge production techniques to a performance that faithfully keeps its focus firmly on the holiday's spiritual aspect.

"The Christmas concert presented by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the No. 1-rated entertainment program on PBS during the holidays, with more than 4 million Americans tuning in to watch it each year," PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said. "This program showcases some of what PBS does best, to use the magic of television to showcase music, dance and the spoken word in order to inspire and entertain our audiences."

On Dec. 13, PBS will debut "Christmas With the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Featuring David Archuleta and Michael York." The footage was shot a year ago — and it's taken almost that whole year to effectively complete the show's complex post-production process, executive producer John Howe explains.

"From the time we tape the show it's essentially worked on all year long, which is one of the reasons why the quality is really first-rate," Howe said. "Fifteen cameras, 110 microphones, a crew of roughly 125 people — it is just literally huge."

Next year's Christmas special will be filmed Dec. 15-17 in downtown Salt Lake City at the LDS Conference Center, and will feature American baritone Nathan Gunn and British actress Jane Seymour. Perhaps the only certainty about next year's "Christmas With the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" is that its production value will find a way to surpass this year's edition.

"It builds every year," Howe said. "Bigger, better, grander — more spectacular in just about every way."

The Tabernacle Choir's Christmas specials have amassed enough good will from PBS that the Archuleta/York show will air in prime time a whopping six times this month, and Kerger will be on hand next week for the taping of the Gunn/Seymour spectacular.

But even as innovation paves the way for the choir's performance to reach an ever-expanding audience, at its core "Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" is still simply defined by 360 voices joining forces to praise the Christ child. Although the playlist may vary from year to year as choir director Mack Wilberg selects pieces suited to talents and abilities of the special guest singer, the overarching focus remains firmly entrenched in the true meaning of Christmas.

"Instead of choosing the more secular songs like 'Frosty the Snowman' or 'Winter Wonderland,' " Lambert said, "what brings the true meaning of Christmas is singing those songs about the Savior and the circumstances surrounding his birth."

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

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