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Chris Samuels, Deseret News
Dancers perform during the finale of Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra on Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.

A dramatic narrative and enactment of the origin of Handel’s Messiah, punctuated with selections from that famed Easter- and Christmastide oratorio, highlighted the first performance Thursday of the annual Christmas concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City.

Additional performances will follow on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Veteran British stage, television and radio actor Martin Jarvis gave voice to the narrative, as Metropolitan Opera soloists Erin Morley, soprano; Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano; Ben Bliss, tenor; and Tyler Simpson, bass-baritone, augmented the choir and orchestra, which, incidentally, will release their own new recording on March 4 of next year.

Broadway star Laura Osnes, famous for her recent portrayal in the title role of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” was the other featured guest performer, returning to the Conference Center less than six months after her performance at the choir’s annual Pioneer Day concert in July.

“When you think of things that fit perfectly with Christmas, can you think of anything better than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?” Osnes asked the audience after singing her opening selection, “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”

Speaking of being in Salt Lake for the summer concerts, she said, “I remember hugging all of my new friends goodbye after the choir sang ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again,’ and I never dreamed that we’d meet again so soon.”

Osnes said she loves everything about Christmas — gifts, music, parties, lights. “Oh, and my goodness! I guess you’ve seen the lights on Temple Square. But most of all I love what is at the heart of Christmas, of all the trimmings and celebrations, and that is Jesus Christ, the Lord.”

She then performed the popular Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Musical director Mack Wilberg shared duties at the podium with associate director Ryan Murphy, who conducted the choir and orchestra in his own arrangement of “Over the River and through the Woods” (originally a Christmas, not a Thanksgiving Day, song) with modernized time signature.

Osnes returned to the stage to perform a lush and sentimental arrangement of “The Secret of Christmas” and Sam Cardon’s “Christmas Bell Fantasy,” a medley of “bell” songs ranging from “Carol of the Bells” to “Jingle Bells.”

Mormon Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott, whose virtuosity at the console of the massive Conference Center organ has become a staple of the choir’s Christmas concerts, brought the audience members to their feet again this year with his own arrangement, “Let Earth Receive Her King! (Joy to the World), a rendition of that familiar carol augmented with passages from “Hallelujah Chorus.”

It foreshadowed what was to come. Guest artist Jarvis took the stage for his narrative about “Messiah,” joined by actors and processional dancers clad in 18th century costumes portraying composer Handel and those who were blessed by early benefit performances of his work. These included paupers who were released from prison, their debts paid by proceeds from his concert, and foundling babes, who were sheltered by a facility that another concert helped construct.

“Jesus said, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’” Jarvis said in his narration. “The fruits of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ were real and abundant: freed debtors, liberated mothers, rescued children. Handel hadn’t simply told the story of the Messiah, the Redeemer, he had actually helped to do the Messiah’s work, to succor God’s children and save them from spiritual death. For each of these precious souls, the Redeemer liveth.”

The segment climaxed with the choir and orchestra performing “Hallelujah” from the oratorio, causing the audience to rise, as is tradition in performances of that chorus.

A performance of “The Wexford Carol” segued into the traditional finale of the choir’s Christmas concerts, a reading of the account of the birth of the Christ child from the second chapter of Luke, done this year by Jarvis, followed by the exultant French carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory” and a reprise of Hallelujah.

In addition to the Friday and Saturday performances of the concerts, the guest artists will be featured at the choir’s regular nationwide broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” on Sunday.

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