SALT LAKE CITY — Amid a medieval castle of fanciful turrets and parapets, each festooned with regal red and blue banners, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square celebrated the birth of a king, the King of Kings, at the annual Christmas concerts last weekend.
Aided by guest artists — the heroic baritone Nathan Gunn and Jane Seymour, an accomplished actress who embodies the spirit of giving through her work for various charities — the theme of generosity was underscored by the retelling of the legend of Good King Wenceslas. Leaving the warmth of his castle, the kind and generous monarch takes food and firewood to peasants — and promises those who “bless the poor shall find blessing.”
Gunn, with his handsome, well-rounded baritone voice, began his portion of the program with flawless renditions of the German “In dulci jubilo” and Basque “Sing Lullaby!” carols. The following aria, “Mighty Lord and King All Glorious” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, was darkly beautiful in timbre and resonant with passion.
When Gunn began receiving high-profile roles at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1990s, his New York fans tossed makeshift confetti of ripped-up programs at his curtain calls. The jubilation was inspired by his polished baritone but also his crisp diction. Required to juggle roles in several languages, opera singers can become careless about enunciating clearly. But Gunn is an articulate singer who refuses to compromise the clear projection of text for the sake of sound.
This crispness and a superb technique were evident in “Silent Night,” sung a cappella with the choir in rich voice, following a masterful orchestral introduction arranged by choir director Mack Wilberg.
In the Ryan Murphy-arranged “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Gunn showed his lighthearted side, and he brought joyful abandon to a medley of “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow!”
Organist Richard Elliott performed a spirited solo, “Shepherds’ Dance,” with a fantasia of colorful lights illuminating the organ pipes. The choir and orchestra’s “And God Said: The Day Shall Dawn,” from Arthur Honegger’s “King David,” and Bach’s “Ah! Dearest Jesus” were also well-received. Choreographer Carol Iwasaki’s Renaissance-themed dances, combining folk dance and pageantry with ballet pointe work, were impressive and beautifully performed by a large contingent of wardrobed knights and fair maidens joined by a group of playful children dancers.
Before the devotional sweetness of Seymour’s narration of the Victorian carol “Good King Wenceslas,” she gave an impromptu, personal message about the joy she feels at Christmastime and the importance of having an open heart that gives freely.
Though the storytelling of myths and once-upon-a-time beginnings were evoked, it did not diminish the grandeur of Seymour’s reading of the Greatest Story Ever Told, found in Luke 2.
Before the concerts, audiences were promised a surprise, and it was a spectacular treat. Within the 21,000-seat LDS Conference Center, it snowed! Magically appearing snowflakes, slowly drifting from the auditorium ceiling, added volume to the snow-covered evergreens nestled around the castle walls.
PBS president Paula Kerger traveled from Washington, D.C., to make the announcement that, with more than four million viewers, the concerts are the leading entertainment shows on public television during December. It’s yet another well-deserved honor and record for the widely acclaimed choir, with “Music and the Spoken Word” as the oldest continuous nationwide network broadcast in America.