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Dancers wearing costumes raise their arms in front of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square as they entertain the audience at the Conference Center during the Christmas concert in Salt Lake City.

Dancers and the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square entertain the audience at the Conference Center during the Christmas concert in Salt Lake City on December 15, 2006. The televised concert was threatened in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

The precarious story behind the Tabernacle Choir’s new Christmas special

SHARE The precarious story behind the Tabernacle Choir’s new Christmas special
SHARE The precarious story behind the Tabernacle Choir’s new Christmas special

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Mack Wilberg knew the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square had a major problem.

“By May or June 2020, we came to the sad realization that we would not be able to put on a live performance” of the choir’s annual Christmas concert in December 2020 because of the pandemic, the music director said.

It was a problem with long-running ramifications, because the choir’s tradition is to take one year’s live concert and produce it for a national broadcast the following year.

So, no live Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City in December 2020 meant no Christmas special to broadcast on PBS and BYUtv in December 2021, threatening what for many has become a great American Christmas tradition.

The pandemic cancellation of the live concert happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the concerts, but Wilberg said the idea of a producing a retrospective was too small.

“There’s also a story to be told about how this not only came about but also how it happens from year to year, and we think that it’s a rather interesting story to tell, so instead of just putting together some highlights, we decided to indeed tell the story,” he said.

It turns out those ideas were problematic, too.

“The interesting thing is that once we got into the material, we were flabbergasted at how much we have had happen in the last 20 years,” Wilberg said.

Sifting through and selecting what to use from the previous concerts was a gargantuan task.

“Mack and David (Warner) and I went through all 20 years. We had a conference call every week for a year,” said Ron Gunnell, global envoy for the choir and executive assistant to the choir president.

The result was a raft of material they wanted to use, along with new performances by Brian Stokes Mitchell and organist Richard Elliott.

“We realized that we could not tell this story in just a 52-minute program, but it would really require, in order to do it well, to be able to use two hours,” Wilberg said.

“We went back to PBS and said, ‘We need two hours,’” Gunnell said.

GBH, the Boston PBS member station that produces the PBS special with BYUtv, agreed.

“We’re grateful to the many who have made that possible for us and having Brian Stokes Mitchell as part of of this presentation,” Wilberg said. “I keep saying it, and I mean it, I don’t think there’s anyone who could have done it better than Brian Stokes Mitchell, and we’re just honored and delighted that he was able to be with us.”

Mitchell taped his portion of the special over five days in November 2020.

For fans of the broadcasts, the special will be both familiar and new. Mitchell, with Wilberg at the piano, sings Wilberg’s new arrangement of “That’s What Christmas Means to Me.”

“He’s playing the piano and I’m singing to 21,000 empty seats,” Mitchell said with a smile.

Elliott has a new organ solo of Tchaikovsky’s “Trepak” from the Nutcracker Suite.

The chance to look back has been a sweet one.

“I always say that because we’re always thinking forward and thinking about the next year, we rarely have the luxury of reflecting on what we’ve done in the past,” Wilberg said. “Sadly because of the situation, we did at least have a little silver lining in that we did have the opportunity to reflect.”

To read a piece I wrote about the history of the choir’s Christmas concerts, click here.

The special will air Monday on PBS affiliates around the country at 7 p.m. MT, and Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. MT. The PBS Utah affiliate will air it again on Thursday at 11 p.m. MT and Dec. 25 at 5 p.m. MT.

BYUtv will broadcast the special on Thursday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m., Dec. 24 at 8pm and Dec. 25 at 1:35 p.m. (all times MT).

It also will be available on PBS’s streaming platforms after Dec. 13, including PBS.org, and on demand at BYUtv.org and the BYUtv app after Dec. 16.

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Behind the scenes

Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, center, accepts a $100,000 donation to the Actors Fund from the Tabernacle Choir.

Tony Award-winning actor and singer Brian Stokes Mitchell, center, accepts a $100,000 donation to the Actors Fund, a charity that provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals, from representatives of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Gary and Debbie Porter, left ,and Ron and Kaye Gunnell, right, at the Broadway supper club Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.

Tad Walch, Deseret News