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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Choir Music Director Mack Wilberg, actress Jane Seymour and singer Nathan Gunn speak at a news conference at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 16, 2011. Seymour and Gunn are the guest performers for this year's Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert.
Everybody who's here wants to be here. You don't have people running away from rehearsal. They're actually showing up early.

SALT LAKE CITY — As audiences have been dazzled by the performances at this year's Christmas concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square, the guest artists have been thrilled by the whole experience.

"For me, this is the gift of Christmas," said British actress Jane Seymour in a news conference Friday, the morning after the dress rehearsal of the concert in the LDS Conference Center.

"To be doing something that is so heartwarming and so necessary at this time, to be involved in a program that lifts people's spirits up, especially when the year's been really tough for a lot of people" is the essence of the holiday for Seymour, "the universal message of giving and receiving love."

Operatic baritone Nathan Gunn, the other guest artist, agreed. "What is really wonderful about being here, and what adds to that element of giving is that everybody's volunteering," he said.

"Everybody who's here wants to be here. You don't have people running away from rehearsal. They're actually showing up early. Every single person I've spoken to, whether they're working backstage or they're in the choir or in the orchestra, have a smile on their face and really giving of themselves. That is palpable, and is something that, for me personally, helps lift up a performance to a higher level."

For nearly a decade, each annual concert has been recorded for nationwide presentation the following year over PBS stations. This year's event began with an announcement about the program's pre-eminence in the yuletide market.

"It gives me great pleasure tonight to announce that this program has become the No. 1-rated entertainment program on PBS during the holidays, with more than 4 million Americans tuning in to watch it each year," said Paula Kerger, PBS president.

Kerger flew in from Washington, D.C., to make the announcement at the Thursday night dress rehearsal of the concert, an event which, in its own right, drew a near-capacity audience in the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City.

The PBS broadcast of the concert, which also features the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Bells on Temple Square, originates with member station KUED in Salt Lake City.

"Through this program millions of Americans have witnessed what PBS does best," Kerger said, "and that is to use the magic of television to showcase music, dance and the spoken word to inspire and entertain like nothing else can. And remarkably, just like the price of your admission ticket, it's broadcast free to millions of people, many of whom in these turbulent times are in dire need of a holiday cheer and sparkle that Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir provides."

An elaborate stage set with stone castle towers, stained-glass windows and flocked evergreens hinted at the program's overall theme. The opening processional featured young dancers in red-and-gold medieval costumes performing to "Sing Forth This Day," a composition by the choir's musical director Mack Wilberg.

Consistent with the theme was a high point in the program, Semour's recounting of the legend of "Good King Wenceslas," accompanied by the choir performing Wilberg's arrangement of that well-known Christmas song.

At the news conference, Seymour said she did not know until late in the planning that she would be involved in that segment.

"I think it was genius," she said, "to come up with that for me, because that really is my story, my message. And it's a broad message, not specific to any one culture or religion either. It's just a beautiful, universal story."

Wilberg encouraged her to affect a colloquial English sound for the voice of the page in the story. For that she chose an accent from the west country, near Bristol. She said that's where the American accent is derived, because so many emigrants departed from ports on the western shore.

In the program's climax, a sublime rendition by the choir and orchestra of "Silent Night" segued into Seymour's recitation from Luke 2 of the story of the birth of Jesus, followed, in keeping with tradition, by Wilberg's exultant arrangement of the French carol "Angels, from the Realms of Glory."

Seymour said she has done spoken narration before but never with music live in the background. "I think if I wasn't musical, I wouldn't understand how to wait for certain moments and hear the music that he's built to crescendo with me talking about the angel coming down, and things like that."

Earlier in the program, Gunn's rich voice was showcased in "In dulci jubilo" and "Sing Lullaby!" a Basque carol that he identified at the news conference as one of his favorite portions of the program.

Reflecting on the joy of his childhood Christmases, he said, "As a father of five, I'm a little bit greedier these days and what I like most, really, is the entire season, because it gives me an opportunity to be a little bit goofy, where I'm otherwise not allowed to be." He told of donning a Santa hat and saying " 'ho, ho, ho' until my 16-year-old gets annoyed" and putting a reindeer costume on the family dog, Nacho.

He enlarged a bit on that at the news conference, saying that Christmas at home, when he is not traveling and the family can be together, is very much a religious holiday in which they attend Mass together. Later, he and his wife, Julie, invite friends and neighbors to their home where they try to revive the dying art of singing carols around the piano, each year choosing a different cultural Christmas theme.

Seymour said Christmas with her husband, James, and their six children "has always been about family" and the effort to express their mutual love in unique ways, the idea being that sentiment is more important than the money spent.

"Our family tradition is we all make cards and we write what we want to say to one another, so it becomes very personal."

At the concert, Gunn performed "Mighty Lord, and King All Glorious" from "Christmas Oratorio" by Bach, among other operatic selections.

But he demonstrated the range of his repertoire with a whimsical performance of Ken Darby's musical setting for "'Twas the Night before Christmas" and a medley of "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas" and "Let It Snow!"

As in previous years, the Sunday broadcast of the choir's TV and radio program "Music and the Spoken Word" will feature the guest artists and selections from the Christmas concert. A "mini-concert" will follow the half-hour broadcast for those attending it live in the Conference Center.

The nationwide network broadcast begins at 9:30 a.m. and is presented locally over KSL-TV Channel 5.

Tickets were distributed earlier by a random selection process, but choir president Mac Christensen said there is a chance for standby seating, both at tonight's performance and at the broadcast Sunday, with the broadcast offering the better hope.