David Archuleta was endearing; Michael York, distinguished; the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, spectacular.
The music was glorious; the setting, magical; the messages, powerful. The dancers, the orchestra, the bells all added to the special flavor of the night.
It was, in fact, the very essence of Christmas. The annual Christmas concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had all the joy, the reflection, the tradition, the emotion that make the season so meaningful.
Archuleta, who rose to fame as a finalist on "American Idol," brought youthful exuberance to the task. "It's mind-boggling to stand in front of the choir, and in front of you — and there are a lot of you," he told the audience. "I'm so grateful to be here."
His rich voice was equally at home with traditional carols such as "Joy to the World" and "Gesu bambino"; the sweet and tender "Cat and Mouse Carol," which talks of how "love came down to earth"; and a soulful "Silent Night." Archuleta also shared some of his own "pioneer heritage" with a Spanish carol, sung in Spanish: "Los pastores a belen."
Heritage played an important part in the narration, "Sing, Choirs of Angels," given by York. As all the best stories do, he said, it begins in the middle, in a humble Welsh home when a child named John Parry was born. The story goes on to tell the story of the beginning — but not the end — of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As both a mason and a musician, Parry set out to build things that last.
The opening "Processional: A Christmas Roundelay" also carried a pioneer flavor. The dancers, choreographed by Carol Iwasaki, were splendid whether they were dancing at an old-fashioned celebration, an elegant ball, in the center of a music box or as if they were angels.
Richard Elliot's "A Holiday Hoedown for Organ (Deck the Halls)" featured amazing hand and footwork. York's reading of the Christmas story from Luke, the signature "Angels, from the Realms of Glory," the rest of the musical tribute to the season all proved the truth of York's musing that "we feel the presence of our ancestors and of generations after whenever we are joined in song."
At a press conference Friday morning, Archuleta and York talked about the "extraordinary experience" of appearing on the Christmas concert.
Archuleta grew up listening to the choir, and even now plays their songs on iTunes. And to be joining them at Christmas makes it "even more special," he said. "What we are celebrating, what we share with the music, what we talk about — at no other time of the year do you feel this way. You can't deny it. We are singing about and celebrating Christ's birth. It's very humbling to think about that."
For York, who has spent more than 45 years on stage and screen, the concerts provide a sense of continuity, he said. This past year he has spent 550 hours of recording time narrating the Old and New Testaments for a project called "Word of Promise."
Then he was asked to narrate Luke for a new Catholic Bible project. "I love Luke. He's such a great recorder. So to get to do Luke on this stage is like a dream fulfilled," said York. He also just released an album of prayers, "so in my mind, it's only natural to be here," he said. But, he added, it's also "a privilege and an honor to be here, to be part of one of the great celebrations of Christmas that the world puts on."
Narrating a story involving Welsh heritage was a moving experience, York said. "I'm half Welsh, so I feel that keenly. The courage they had to cross the ocean, the great faith they had. That's another reason why I want to be here. It's an extraordinary story worth the telling."
York is the only one who "could tell that story," added choir president Mac Christensen. "We are so pleased to have him here. He's a true, kind, brilliant genius."
As for Archuleta, "we've been trying to get him ever since he was on 'American Idol.' He's just gotten better, so now we have him at his best."
Choir director Mack Wilberg added his delight in this year's guest artists. It's great to feature "one of our own," as well as to have someone who brings "such stature to storytelling" as Michael York. Noting that it will again be filmed for release on PBS stations next year, Wilberg said, "the concert is our gift, not only to the community, but to the nation."
It's one that will be a treat to unwrap again and again.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company