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5 highlights from the Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert

Broadway star Kelli O’Hara’s appearance marks the 20th Christmas concert the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square has performed in the 21,000-seat Conference Center

Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago, Kristin Chenoweth snuck onto the Conference Center stage, interrupted Richard Elliott’s organ solo and rang a really large bell. This December, the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square has welcomed another Broadway star from Oklahoma to ring in the Christmas season: Kelli O’Hara.

Although they grew up in different parts of Oklahoma, Chenoweth and O’Hara found their way to the same voice teacher at Oklahoma City University: Florence Birdwell. Now, they’ve both brought their theatrical talent to Salt Lake City, claiming a spot on the Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas guest artist list, which began in 2000 with soul singer Gladys Knight and “Touched By An Angel” actress Roma Downey.

Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

O’Hara’s appearance marks the 20th Christmas concert the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square have performed in the 21,000-seat Conference Center. Over three days, the concert — which has become a sold-out holiday tradition — will draw 63,000 people to downtown Salt Lake City.

Here are five highlights from the concert, which runs at the Conference Center through Dec. 14 and will air on PBS and BYUtv next December.

1. Five years ago, O’Hara made her Metropolitan Opera debut alongside Renee Fleming — who was a guest artist with the choir in 2005. With her soaring soprano voice, the singer gave feeling to Christmas tunes like “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” the lesser-known “The Birthday of a King,” by William Harold Neidlinger, and the lullaby “A Cradle in Bethlehem” — one of her father’s favorite Christmas songs.

“There is a spirit here. A lovely spirit that inspires me, that is overwhelming to me,” said O’Hara, who added that she grew up listening to the Tabernacle Choir. “I feel the spirit of home and family and Christmas here.”

2. The Orchestra at Temple Square celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year, and the ensemble has been a part of the Christmas concerts at the Conference Center from the beginning. “These concerts would not be what they are without the orchestra,” Scott Barrick, the choir’s general manager, told the Deseret News, adding that guest artists over the years are always surprised to learn that the musicians are volunteers.

Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Kelli O’Hara performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Led by associate choir director Ryan Murphy, the orchestra performed Nathan Hofheins’ “A Christmas Overture” — a medley of Christmas classics like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World.” But the orchestra’s real shining moment — along with the choir — came in a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” The triumphant rendition had the entire audience on its feet.

3. The Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert would be incomplete without a show-stopping solo from principal organist Elliott. This year, Elliott didn’t have a bell-ringing Chenoweth to steal his moment, but he did add the Utah-based bluegrass band Cold Creek to the mix. The musicians — complete with a fiddle, banjo, stand-up bass and mandolin — performed a version of “Jingle Bells” that at times sounded more like the “Orange Blossom Special.” No one complained.

Richard Elliot and Cold Creek perform during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Richard Elliott and Cold Creek perform during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

4. Richard Thomas had a twinkle in his eye as he narrated Pearl S. Buck’s “Christmas Day in the Morning.” Thomas — who is best known for his Emmy-winning role as John-Boy Walton in the 1970s series “The Waltons” — seemed to be channeling Mister Rogers as he wore a blue sweater and made his way down some steps so he could tell the story of a man named Rob, who went from feeling like Christmas was “just another winter morning” to being inspired to make the holiday the best one yet for his wife. His tender storytelling, enhanced by choir director Mack Wilberg’s musical arrangements, shined just as bright in his recitation of the Christmas story in Luke 2.

Richard Thomas performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Richard Thomas performs with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

5. The aesthetics were also a highlight. The extravagant stage was set up like a farmhouse, reflecting O’Hara’s upbringing in western Oklahoma. Dancers leapt across the stage, sparkling stars hung in the sky, and below, children brought the Nativity to life. It was a visual reminder of how much work goes into putting on this yearly production that has become a beloved tradition.

Dancers perform around the Tree of Life with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Dancers perform around the Tree of Life with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Orchestra at Temple Square during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Note: Two more performances will take place at the Conference Center, Dec. 13-14, at 8 p.m. The concerts are free but sold out, and a standby line will form at the north gate of Temple Square approximately two hours prior to each concert.