The Tabernacle Choir in Temple Square usually starts planning its annual Christmas concert months in advance.
This year, as the world continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic, the choir first had to demonstrate its ability to perform and rehearse safely.
The choir members began to prove they could in September when they resumed rehearsals, at general conference and on live broadcasts, although some choir members later tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly after general conference in early October, it was decided to move forward with plans to include a live Christmas concert with only a small audience on three nights in December — Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
That left two months to prepare.
Take it off, they did. The recorded sessions will be used to create a “Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir” TV special, featuring guest artists Megan Hilty and Neal McDonough, for PBS and BYUtv in 2022.
Hours before Friday night’s concert was taped, Mike Leavitt, president of the Tabernacle Choir in Temple Square, had an expression of tired contentment.
“It was a demanding process, but we got it done and I think we did a good job,” he said.
Leavitt, Hilty, McDonough and Mack Wilberg, the choir’s musical director, were all in attendance Friday afternoon to discuss the concert with reporters ahead of the evening performance. Leavitt and Wilberg offered insight into the backstory of the concert, while Hilty and McDonough were excited about the chance to be involved.
The backstory of the Christmas concert 2021
The choir was “elated” when it heard of the return of the Christmas concert.
“Not only is it part of their tradition, but it’s part of the gift we give to the community and the world,” Leavitt said. “There is something special about being able to offer a sense of unity, a sense of peace and healing at Christmas time. The choir has a broad mission, but that comes out well at Christmas.”
But safety was the number one concern, Wilberg said.
Even with what Leavitt has called the Swiss Cheese Plan, a layered strategy developed for protection as the choir returned to rehearsal, there were members who contracted COVID-19, he said.
“I use the term safe, but it should be noted that it has not been without risk or encounters with COVID,” de Leavitt said. “Over the course of the past three months we have had numerous members of the choir contracted (COVID-19) and tested positive, but to our knowledge they have not had any transmission in the loft.”
The choir has participated in a scientific study to detect, trace and establish how the virus was passed from person to person.
“Once we demonstrated safety at every level, we took another step,” Leavitt said. “So after general conference it was concluded that we could do this safely—if we were compliant and had the blessings of heaven. Both were important. And the decision has been made, we will continue with the Christmas concert.”
Performing for 4,000 at the Conference Center
Each evening, The Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra, and Bells perform in Temple Square to a relatively small audience of socially distancing masked people, mostly made up of families of members of the choir organization and some leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints. Leavitt said there are fewer than 4,000 at the 21,000-seat conference center each night.
The choir managers examined components such as the ventilation system to determine how many people could be safely admitted to the Conference Center.
“We did a lot of modeling to determine how much risk was reduced through a whole series of actions,” Leavitt said. “How much risk was reduced by masking the public? How much was reduced by keeping them socially distant? What was the difference in risk if we got everyone vaccinated? Those were the kinds of things that came into the modeling, and the modeling said that if we followed this protocol, we could produce a safe result.”
Find guest artists
Now that safety was secure, the next concern was finding some guest artists.
“Luckily, that came together very quickly, compared to other years,” Wilberg said. “Once we captured our guest artists, we knew where we were going. … We didn’t realize they brought a bit of commonality to their backgrounds, so we decided to take advantage of this, which is their Irish heritage.
Hilty — fresh from her appearance earlier this month in NBC’s musical special “Annie Live!” – is known for her portrayal of Ivy Lynn in NBC’s music drama ‘Smash’ and has appeared on the CBS shows ‘The Good Wife’ and ‘The Good Fight’. Her Broadway credits include Glinda the Good Witch in “Wicked,” Doralee Rhodes in “9 to 5: The Musical,” and Brooke Ashton in “Noises Off.”
She was “delighted” to receive an invitation to perform with the choir and be a part of the Christmas concert. There was no hesitation on her part.
“Let’s just say I cleaned everything up so I could be here,” Hilty said.
“There’s something about standing in this sea of beautiful voices so beautifully trained to sing together. I’m having a bit of a problem articulating it because it’s mostly a feeling, and it’s incredibly powerful to be so close to all that talent and all that excellent musicianship and then get to sing with them. It’s really an experience that I can’t quite put into words, but it feels so decadent.”
An award-winning actor, McDonough has starred in more than 100 films, including “Captain America” and “Forever Strong.” He portrayed Lt. Compton in the World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers” and Sean Cahill in the TV series “Suits”. He is a devout Catholic who was once fired from a network show for refusing to do sex scenes.
McDonough said he was scheduled to shoot a western in Tucson, Arizona, but due to COVID-19, plans changed, leaving his calendar wide open for December.
“I’m pretty sure it was divine intervention,” he said. “But I couldn’t be happier. I was so busy until about a week ago… and then I just stopped. Then I could mentally prepare to be the narrator for this great show. It’s really remarkable. It is a blessing upon blessings.”
McDonough said he is humbled to serve as the concert’s narrator and impressed with how quickly it came about. He is also honored to work with members of the Latter-day Saints whose heritage reminds him of his own Irish roots.
“To be the storyteller that brings the Catholic faith and the Mormon faith together and makes us realize that we are all here as God’s children… to celebrate that, it’s a pretty amazing feeling,” he said. “It’s all God’s work and tonight he molded me to be the narrator for the most amazing show I’ve ever been a part of.”
Sacrifice and more appreciation for being together
Leavitt and Wilberg both came out with more appreciation for the sacrifice of the choir members and the opportunity to be together after preparing for the Christmas concert.
Leavitt told of choir members who stayed late for rehearsal last week and traveled long distances home in snowy conditions, only to return the next day.
“To understand how much choir members sacrifice,” he said. “That’s perhaps the most important realization I have is how much they sacrifice and how much goes into the preparation of this pretty amazing production. This is world quality.”
Wilberg has been participating in the annual Christmas concert since 1999, but says this year is different.
“What strikes me is just a greater appreciation for being able to be together,” he said. “Pre-COVID we took a lot of things for granted. I think we learned some great lessons through all of this. For this special occasion, we are thrilled to be together, making music again and sharing what we do with so many.”