SALT LAKE CITY — Fans of “Downton Abbey” received an early Christmas present Thursday night as the sonorous voice of Lord Grantham rang through the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
With his booming voice, narrator Hugh Bonneville complimented the large, sold-out venue, humorously noting that “This place makes Downton Abbey look like a toolshed.”
But well before Bonneville took the stage, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s annual Christmas concert gave audience members a wide array of holiday classics.
Surrounded by brightly lit Christmas trees, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square kicked off the performance with a lively rendition of “Joy to the World,” with the Bells on Temple Square joining halfway through the piece, filling the empty aisles between the choir with robust ringing.
Donning a shimmering dress, singer and special guest Sutton Foster, who has earned Tony Awards for roles in “Anything Goes” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” brought her Broadway charisma to the Conference Center stage, her mezzo-soprano voice soaring high during the holiday classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Before diving into her next song, Foster took a moment to give the audience a wide smile, shouting an enthusiastic “Hi!” and throwing up a pair of jazz hands for good measure.
“Thank you so much. I cannot tell you how thrilled and excited I am to be here! I love playing intimate venues like this,” she joked.
Foster, who exuded a charming, down-to-earth demeanor throughout the performance, noted that members of her family and extended family were in attendance. She explained that her next song, the popular Vince Guaraldi classic “Christmas Time is Here,” is especially meaningful to her as her recently adopted daughter, Emily, considers the tune from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to “be her absolute favorite song.”
The concert also featured a couple of non-Christmas tunes — John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” — selections for which Foster provided a touching explanation.
“I grew up listening to my mom’s eight-track tapes,” she said. “My favorite was John Denver’s greatest hits, and my absolute favorite song was ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders.’ You would not believe how many times this little girl turned our wood-paneled living room into a beautiful concert where John or I would put on a fabulous show for my Donny and Marie dolls.”
Then, with emotion both audible and visible, Foster told the audience that her mother, a big John Denver fan, passed away a couple years ago, saying, “I really wish that my mom could be here tonight. As I sing this song for all of you, I would very much also like to sing it for her.”
The Orchestra and Bells on Temple Square returned the concert to its festive spirit with an energetic rendition of “Sleigh Ride” — horse whinnies and all. Foster followed with a medley of Christmas-themed songs, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and a jazz-infused version of “Happy Holiday.”
But one of the loudest applauses of the night came when conductor Mack Wilberg led an interactive version of “Jingle Bells,” inviting the audience to join in on the singing with only one piece of advice: Pay attention.
“With 21,000 of us, it’s the only way we’ll stay together,” Wilberg joked.
Donning a Christmas scarf, Wilberg led the Conference Center in a rendition of “Jingle Bells” filled with dancing, bells and snow. But it was organist Richard Elliott who really got the crowd riled up and on its feet with his own fancy footwork and vivacious fingerwork on the organ during “I Saw Three Ships.”
“What an act to follow, that was quite something!” Bonneville stated as he stepped onto the stage. The narrator proceeded to give a moving recitation of the story behind the hymn, "It is Well With My Soul." Bonneville shared the story of Horatio Spafford, a man who lost his fortune in a fire and, later, his four little girls in a shipwreck while in journey to celebrate Christmas in Paris in 1873.
When Spafford heard of this tragedy, he said, "There is just one thing in these days that has become magnificently clear: I must not lose faith." Spafford set sail to join his wife, and four days into his voyage, came to the very place where the ship had sunk. Refusing to look down, Bonneville exclaimed that Spafford "gazed out across the rolling waves ... and there and then, he began to formulate a simple expression of his faith, a verse that would become a hymn: 'When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, It is well. It is well with my soul.'"
Following this story, Bonneville then gave a stirring recitation of Luke 2 and Foster, the choir, Orchestra and Bells on Temple Square concluded the concert with the French carol “Angels From the Realms of Glory” — an exuberant rendition enthusiastically received by the audience.
Two more performances will take place at the Conference Center Dec. 15-16, 8 p.m. The concerts are free but sold out, and a standby line will form at the north gate of Temple Square approximately two hours prior to each concert.