The idea came from Walter Cronkite.
For nearly a quarter of a century, the esteemed broadcaster hosted annual PBS telecasts of the Vienna Philharmonic to usher in the new year, becoming the largest event in classical music.
During Cronkite’s visit to perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 2002, “he turned to the choir’s former music director, Craig Jessop, and said, ‘You know, Craig, the choir should own Christmas, just like the Vienna Philharmonic owns New Year’s Day,’ ” recalled choir general manager Scott Barrick.
“Mr. Cronkite’s suggestion was the genesis of the choir’s desire to be on PBS, and we’re seeing the fulfillment of that now with the tradition that’s going into the ninth year,” Barrick said.
“Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir” is now synonymous with Christmas celebrations across the country.
The concert 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,” announced PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger from the LDS Conference Center at last year’s event.
“Millions of people are in dire need of a holiday cheer and sparkle that ‘Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’ provides,” she added.
According to Barrick, 98 percent of the PBS stations broadcast the concert at least once, with many stations reserving Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to schedule the concert. The 2010 concert with pop singer David Archuleta was broadcast a record six times during the season at some stations.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Barrick reviewed the history of the Christmas concerts, which began in the early days of the formation of what is now an internationally renowned 360-voice choir.
“For many years there were refreshments served in the Tabernacle basement for choir members and their families after Christmas concerts, something we couldn’t even think of doing today,” he said.
In 2000, after the Conference Center opened, the choir invited singer Gladys Knight and actress Roma Downey as its first guest artists. “Gladys Knight is cherished in the hearts of Latter-day Saints,” Barrick said. “It was a wonderful first outing and very well-received.”
The following year of 2001, “following by just a few months of the horrible events of Sept. 11, Angela Lansbury originally had declined our invitation. But she then decided that she wanted to be doing something for the country, and this is what she could do and she changed her mind.”
The concert with the legendary actress was broadcast to a small handful of PBS affiliates by KBYU and then released on DVD, the first of many recordings the choir has made available to much success.
The first national PBS broadcast was the 2003 concert, the year following Cronkite’s appearance, with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and baritone Bryn Terfel as guest artists.
“We want our guest artists to feel comfortable with what they are performing,” Barrick said. “Many times the songs performed they have previously sung, but there are also requests from artists to sing new pieces. So arrangements are written just for that artist.”
There is a moment with Broadway luminary Audra McDonald, a five-time Tony winner, that Barrick remembers with fondness. At the 2004 concert, it was the first time McDonald was to publicly perform a selection arranged just for her and the choir.
“I remember her at the rehearsal saying, ‘OK, I’m a Julliard-trained musician. I can do this. I can do this.’ It was really cute,” he said with a laugh.
McDonald has said that performing with the choir is an “experience that I will have in my heart for the rest of my life.”
She added, “What moved me most about the choir is the singularity of sound. It sounds like one voice, one multifaceted voice. And so to be enveloped by that sound is miraculous, it really is.”
Of her performance with the choir, Lansbury said, “I didn’t realize that I was going to be hit by this extraordinary spirit!” She added, “You’re simply drenched in the power and the spirit and the warmth. This is unforgettable.”
“The artists we approach are always very flattered and anxious to perform, as long as it can be worked into their schedule," Barrick said. Whenever possible, the invitations are made directly to the guest, without first going through the performers’ management representatives.
Barrick was reminded of a quote from von Stade: “There are certain wonderful landmarks that one has in one’s career — sort of the brass ring — and I’d say one of the top brass rings is to be able to sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
Norwegian vocalist Sissel has recommended, “If you ever have a chance in your lifetime to perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, don’t even think about it, just do it.’ ”
Guests have included soprano Renee Fleming, the London-based a cappella group the King’s Singers, Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, jazz singer Natalie Cole and actors Claire Bloom, Edward Herrmann, Peter Graves and Michael York.
“We’ve performed with so many guest artists, not only at the Christmas concerts but other performances as well, and they all know each other,” Barrick explained. “Many times we’re able to ask a previous artist to be our entree to another.”
Concert viewers are amazed at the sheer spectacle of the performance of the guests, the choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square in the 21,000-seat Conference Center, believed to be the largest theater-style auditorium ever built.
“We try with each concert to have — and we haven’t really talked about this in public, but you can use this term — a ‘wow moment.’ We have our wonderful guest artists and they of themselves are a ‘wow’ when they come out on stage,” Barrick said.
“Last year it was the snow falling inside the Conference Center. Before that it was the large Christmas tree coming out of the center of the stage. Sometimes it’s just the sheer spectacle of what the set looks like.
“We have a ‘wow moment’ that we’ve planned for this year, but we never spoil that surprise.”
Could he give a hint to a news writer who would swear not to share?
“Not on a stack of Bibles,” Barrick said. “(Director) Mack Wilberg would slit my throat.”
Meet the choir’s guests:
Guests artists at this year’s “Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir” are:
Alfie Boe is perhaps most widely known to Americans as the hand-picked artist to perform the role of Jean Valjean in the 25th anniversary production of “Les Misérables.” He won a Tony Award for his role in the Baz Luhrmann version of “La Bohème” after the director spent two years looking for the lead. Boe performed at the Diamond Jubilee concert of Queen Elizabeth II, singing “O Sole Mio” before launching into Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never.”
His most recent recording is “Storyteller,” which follows “Alfie,” “Bring Him Home” and “After a Dream.” Boe’s wife Sarah is a Utah-raised and University of Utah-trained actress, and the couple and their two children are part-time residents of Salt Lake City.
Tom Brokaw, the “NBC Nightly News” anchor for more than two decades and a former host of the network’s “Today Show,” previously performed with the choir when he recorded “9/11: Rising Above,” a “Music and the Spoken Word” special broadcast. He is the author of “The Greatest Generation" and other best-selling books.
He has been awarded a Peabody Award, two duPonts and several Emmys. Brokaw lives on a ranch in Montana with his wife Merideth. The two have been married since 1962 and have three daughters.