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Guests enjoy working with Tabernacle Choir

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Brian Stokes Mitchell doesn't mince his words when he talks about collaborating with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"It's a remarkable experience working with the choir," the Tony Award-winning singer and actor said at a news conference Friday morning at the LDS Conference Center. "I can't think of a better choir in the world to sing with. They are great artists individually and collectively."

Mitchell is in Salt Lake City for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's annual Christmas concerts this weekend. He was joined at the news conference by actor Edward Herrmann, choir music director Mack Wilberg and choir president Mac Christensen.

Herrmann, who narrates Longfellow's "Christmas" and the Christmas story according to Luke, echoed Mitchell's sentiments.

"Working with Mack is an absolute treat. He is one of you."

He added that collaborating with Wilberg and the choir is an experience that goes beyond mere musicmaking. "There is a spiritual element here" that makes a huge difference.

For Mitchell, this is his second time performing with the choir in three months. He was one of the guest artists at the O.C. Tanner Gift of Music concert with the Utah Symphony in September. "It feels like coming home," he said of his engagement at this year's Christmas concerts.

Christensen said that after the Tanner concerts, the choir office was inundated with phone calls from people wanting Mitchell to return to Salt Lake City. "Ninety percent of the calls were from women wanting to get him back."

"We engaged Stokes last May or June for the Tanner concerts and the Christmas concerts," Wilberg added. "And after he sang here in September, we knew we were in for a wonderful treat this Christmas."

Among the many highlights at Friday night's performance was Mitchell's rendition of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," in a Broadway-esque arrangement by Michael Davis; John Bucchino's "Grateful"; and Maury Yeston's "New Words," a song about a dad teaching his young son about the wonders of life and into which Mitchell poured his heart, since he is the proud father of a 5-year-old boy.

Mitchell has tremendous stage personality. He is larger than life — and sings that way. Perhaps the highlight of the show is his own arrangement of J.S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," which starts out as a vocalise for him and the choir and gradually develops into a full-blown song, with Mitchell easily holding his own against the 350-plus members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Herrmann, who gave touching renditions of his two selections Friday, has a little-known connection to Utah. He met his current wife while filming in southern Utah some 30 years ago. "We met while we were shooting 'Harry's War' in St. George," he said. They now have two grown children and a 12-year-old daughter.

Herrmann's wife is LDS, and the children were brought up in the faith. "My family is basically LDS, but I am a holdout. I've remained Catholic."

Speaking of the concert, Herrmann said there are so many great moments in this year's show. And Wilberg said the great thing about a Christmas concert is the fact that there is something for everyone.

When great artists like Mitchell and Herrmann are added to the mix, then it becomes something special. "They are distinguished artists who are an absolute joy to work with," Wilberg said. "They are first-rate human beings, and we are honored to have them with us."

And the feeling is mutual. At one point at Friday night's show Mitchell said "being here with the choir and Mack in front of 21,000 people is like heaven on a stick. It doesn't get any better."

The concert will be repeated today at 7:30 p.m. There also will be a mini-concert immediately following the "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast Sunday. All tickets have been distributed. However, there will be a stand-by line forming at the north gate of Temple Square at 6 p.m. today and 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com