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Joy to the world conveyed at concert

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A self-proclaimed fan since childhood of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, internationally renowned operatic soprano Renee Fleming was featured extensively at the annual Christmas concert of the choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square presented Dec. 8-10 in the Conference Center.

British stage, screen and television actress Claire Bloom was guest narrator for the 90-minute program, which included performances from the University of Utah Department of Ballet and the Bells on Temple Square.

It was the first visit to Salt Lake City for Ms. Fleming, a Rochester, N. Y., native, who greeted the audience with unrestrained praise for the choir, orchestra and "this awe-inspiringly gorgeous and enormous hall." In characterizing herself as a choir fan, she described herself as the daughter of parents, saying that "one was a choral director and one was a soprano."

The selections she performed with the choir and orchestra included half a dozen arrangements by Mack Wilberg, the choir's associate director, beginning with a rendition of "Joy to the World" that showcased her virtuosity in a lively variation on the melody. She sang "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella!" in the original French, employing childlike facial expressions and gestures to help communicate the message and feel of this children's Christmas classic. And she displayed versatility on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (which she dedicated to the men and women serving in the armed forces in Iraq who might not be home for Christmas), at times lapsing into whimsical variation and bluesy rendition.

In introducing the song "Poor Mary," she reflected that her mother had sung it to her at least twice a year when she was growing up. "And she was very wise, because she knew that this was an incredibly special piece, so she never lent it to anyone else. So I called her last week, and I said, 'Mom, your secret's out, because Mack Wilberg has made the most glorious arrangement and I'm so excited to sing it with the ladies of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.' "

Over a background of Russian Christmas music, Ms. Bloom narrated the story of a Siberian villager whose 8-year-old daughter is killed during a rampage of marauding soldiers during the revolution of 1917, but is comforted with the true meaning of Christmas as he feels her presence at a bell-ringing ceremony in which she was to have participated at the town square on Christmas morning.

Among the selections by the choir and orchestra was a stirring rendition of "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," the well-known chorus from Handel's "Messiah."

And the work of arranger Arthur Harris — the Mack Wilberg of bygone days — was featured in "Sleigh Ride" and "Winter Wonderland," the latter song augmented with a performance by ballet dancers portraying young people frolicking in the snow. (Both Harris arrangements were performed in the movie "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" which, this year, was sent to Church magazine subscribers on DVD marking the movie's 25th anniversary.)

Ms. Fleming's performance of the German carol "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" seamlessly segued into what has become a traditional finale for the annual concert: a narration of the Christmas Story from Luke 2 (rendered this year by Ms. Bloom) as the centerpiece for a glorious performance by all the concert artists of the French carol "Angels from the Realms of Glory." As in previous years, a standing ovation was answered with a reprise of the chorus, audience members singing along at the invitation of musical director Craig Jessop.

Brother Jessop and Brother Wilberg conducted the music. Organists for the concert were John Longhurst, Clay Christiansen and Richard Elliott. Carol Iwasaki choreographed the ballet performance and the processional by dancers who filled the aisles during the second selection, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo!" Under the direction of Thomas Waldron, the Bells on Temple Square were featured throughout the evening, primarily on the Ukrainian "Carol of the Bells" and during the story narrated by Ms. Bloom.

E-mail to: rscott@desnews.com