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By Chen Wang, Deseret News

Each year the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells at Temple Square offer a musical gift not only to the community but to the world.

When this year's "Wondrous Gift of Christmas" was unwrapped, it revealed a package richly endowed with hope and joy, praise and glory and the quintessential spirit of the season.

With special guests R&B, pop and jazz singer Natalie Cole and author and historian David McCullough, and with a troupe of graceful dancers and a lively combined children's choir from Salt Lake and Utah County, the program was a delightful celebration of Christmas past, present and around the world, a treasure of song and story.

Cole sparkled as she sang both pop favorites and traditional carols with what she called her "wonderful backup singers." Especially meaningful was her rendition of "The Christmas Song." It wasn't officially Christmas until they sang that song in her home, she told the audience — "of course, it was real cool, having the original singer (her father, Nat King Cole) right there."

McCullough pointed out that music is such a part of the American story "that if you take it away, you take away part of our soul." But, he added, "the music means more when you know the story behind it." He told the story of "a cherished carol and a beloved song," and their importance during a pivotal time in American history — World War II. He referred to "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Their stories, he said, still remind us how important it is to bring peace into each of our hearts and homes.

Several original songs composed and/or arranged by choir director Mack Wilberg added to the special flavor of the evening, including a grand processional, "Come, O Come," a sprightly rendition of "Carols in the Air" featuring music and dance from Spain, Jamaica, Ireland, Russia and Germany, and an "O Holy Night" that beautifully captured the reverence and divinity of the Nativity.

Richard Elliot's organ solo wove together "Good King Wenceslas" and "The Nutcracker" and brought the audience to its feet. And Cole captured the sweetness and the power of the biblical account with her narration of the Christmas story.

At a press conference earlier Friday, Cole and McCullough both expressed their excitement and appreciation in being able to perform at this year's concert.

"They are great," the eight-time Grammy-winning Cole said of the choir and orchestra. "One of the things that I was really impressed to discover was that these are all volunteers. I've worked with a lot of people through the years, a lot of choirs and churches, as well. I tell you this is as professional as it can be. Their willingness to do well ran throughout the performance."

"I think Natalie said it perfectly," McCullough said. "(It) is so gratifying to be your guest. I am not accustomed to being in front of 21,000 people. And I'm not accustomed to a big orchestra and chorus behind me. When I stood out here last night on the edge of the stage, (at the final dress rehearsal) all of a sudden this sound started behind me and I almost fell off the stage.

"I thought that would be a perfect entrance to my experience here."

Cole has had some rough times this year. She underwent a kidney transplant, and while she was on the operating table, her sister, Carole "Cookie" Cole, died of lung cancer. "This year has been a very emotional year for me," she said. "So to close it out working with these wonderful people is just such a feeling of goodness.

"I really think we are here to honor our Lord Jesus Christ. He will be definitely honored, and I'm sure he's pleased. It's so nice to take the I out of it and make it a team effort."

McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, emphasized how impressed he was with the production.

"History should not just be perceived as just politics and the military," he said. "It involves the whole realm of human expression and human experience. And to leave out music, art, literature, architecture, dance, poetry, drama is to leave out not just color and flavor and sound, but a lot of the soul of a culture. Many civilizations are known only for their art.

"That's all as much a part of the American reality and the American story as our expected protagonists of history," he said. "In this one performance we have musicians, dancers, people speaking great literature, singing, architecture, all working at once. And we should never ever take it for granted."

"The Wondrous Gift of Christmas" continues today at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:30 a.m. (for the "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast) in the LDS Conference Center. No tickets are available, but stand-by lines will form at the north gate on Temple Square at 6 tonight and at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

e-mail: scott@desnews.com, carma@desnews.com