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.
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