SALT LAKE CITY — Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But in 2020, there will be no live Christmas concert by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.
The reason is painfully obvious: Our pattern of pandemic privation persists.
There is consolation for kids 1 to 92. The annual tradition of a national broadcast of the previous year’s concert will go on as scheduled this December. The 2019 concert that will air this Christmas season featured Broadway star Kelli O’Hara and “The Waltons” actor Richard Thomas.
It’s not yet clear what will happen with the annual concert broadcast in December 2021, when there will be no 2020 concert to broadcast. The choir’s president hinted in a news release Friday that a solution is already being considered.
“This is disappointing for all of us,” choir president Ron Jarrett said, “but we have found a silver lining in these unique times by discovering innovative ways to share our vast repository of music with more people globally than ever before through the blessing of modern technology. As such, we are exploring ways to continue the choir’s annual traditions of TV specials and recordings next year, even in the absence of a live Christmas concert in 2020.”
The choir also announced Friday that it will sit out the rest of 2020. No more rehearsals or performances, as has been the case since March. The choir is complying with the direction of its sponsor, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to avoid large public gatherings where COVID-19 is present.
The 360-member Tabernacle Choir could be at particular risk. COVID-19 outbreaks around the world have shown that choir singing is one of the most efficient ways to spread the coronavirus.
“They’re cheek to cheek, and (Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg) — he’s one of my heroes — is an incredible choral director, and what we do as choral directors is we insist on great diction and great pronunciation, and that means we’re blowing spit all over the place all the time,” Tim Sharp, executive director of the American Choral Directors Association, said in an interview with ChurchBeat earlier this summer.
Even auditions for new Tabernacle Choir members for 2021 are on hold. The final three phases of the four-step audition process have been postponed to next year, Jarrett said.
The choir’s Christmas concert became a public event in 2000, when it moved from the Tabernacle to the new Conference Center across the street and began to include a nationally recognizable narrator and guest musical star or stars.
The live concert has grown to three performances attended by a total of more than 60,000 people.
After the late Walter Cronkite, who narrated the concert in 2002, suggested the choir should “own Christmas,” the choir teamed with PBS to make each year’s live concert the following year’s national broadcast beginning in 2004.
Now the concerts air nationally on BYUtv and more than 200 PBS affiliates, including those in all of the top 50 U.S. media markets. More than 90% of those PBS stations rebroadcast the annual special on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, choir general manager Scott Barrick told the Deseret News last year.
The choir has sold about 1 million Christmas concert CDs, half a million DVDs and half a million books, he said.
For many, the choir and Christmas are virtually synonymous. Christmas music on the choir’s YouTube channel has logged nearly 40 million views.
Friday’s announcements also canceled the annual fall concert of the Orchestra at Temple Square and the November concert of the Bells at Temple Square. The choir postponed its 2020 Heritage Tour in Europe to 2021.
Prerecorded Tabernacle Choir performances were used in the church’s April general conference. Encore recordings also have been aired for the choir’s weekly “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts and will be used again during the faith’s October general conference.
During the pandemic, with many churchgoers observing the Sabbath at home, ratings are up significantly for “Music and the Spoken Word,” with tens of thousands of additional viewers across its broadcast platforms, Barrick said last month.
To fulfill its musical mission in spite of the pandemic, the choir also has launched new features.
“Piping Up” is a new online series in place of the weekly noon organ recitals performed by the Tabernacle and Temple Square organists. The organists now perform three times a week from the Conference Center. The first broadcast included a rousing rendition of the William Tell Overture with all five organists playing at once.
Brigham Young University music professor Luke Howard also leads a new online chat feature on YouTube, speaking with a choir member and providing information about the music featured in each program.
“More important now than ever is the need for experiences that elevate, uplift and bring people closer to the divine,” Wilberg said in the news release.