How composer Kurt Bestor found his own Christmas groove
Things have changed a lot in 25 years.
But one constant thread for the Utah holidays has been Kurt Bestor's Christmas concert, now hitting the milestone of its 25th anniversary. "You don't know when you start something how it's going to turn out," Bestor said.
Bestor said he started the concert as a way to sell CDs after recording his first album, "An Airus Christmas." "I needed something to generate interest in the project, especially since no one had ever heard of Kurt Bestor," he said.
Back then, he said, it wasn't as common for musicians to release Christmas CDs or shows, and the biggest holiday act was Mannheim Steamroller. As for Bestor himself, he considered himself a behind-the-scenes composer, but decided to make a go of it, booking Abravanel Hall and hiring a small orchestra.
"The first concert was quiet and quaint," said longtime fan Harmonie Race. "It was just him and maybe five musicians onstage. Kurt made us feel like we were over at his house, and he was just playing music, telling us the story behind each of the songs, and how the song came about."
It turned out that Bestor makes a good frontman. As for the show, it now features lighting effects, up to 45 other musicians onstage, video projections and, of course, guest artists.
This year's guest artists are violinist Jenny Oaks Baker and Alex Sharpe, of PBS's "Celtic Woman." Baker has collaborated with Bestor on a number of projects, including the Grammy-nominated CD "Wish Upon a Star: A Tribute to the Music of Walt Disney." Her current CD, "NoÃ«l: Carols of Christmas Past," has Bestor's fingerprints all of it as producer and arranger. Sharpe is also featured on the CD.
"My part of the show will be from the album," Baker said. "[Bestor's] music touches me so deeply. I love it because it always takes you to a great place. It kind of starts out with this wonderful imaginative opening and then you go on this amazing journey, end up in the most climactic place possible, and then resolve in such a happy way."
It's a bit of a homecoming for Baker to be in this year's show; she first played in Bestor's holiday shows when she was in high school. "I was in his orchestra, just trying to make a little extra money in some of his first shows. So I just kind of grew up doing it."
Other musicians have been with the show for almost the whole ride, such as guitarist Michael Dowdle, who was around for that first show and back almost every year since.
The youngest musician to be along for the entire journey is Bestor's daughter, Erika, a singer. Bestor's then-wife was pregnant with her when the composer launched his first show. "She's as old as the show is," Bestor said. "Sometimes when I can't remember how long I have been doing this, I remember it's Erika's age."
Over the years, traditions have developed, most of them unintentionally, such as a humorous reading of " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas." "I have someone come up out of the audience," Bestor said, "and read it just impromptu. In-the-know fans will often plant their father or grandfather on the first couple of rows, hoping they'll be chosen."
Bestor said the show's trademark banter between songs began with his storytelling, as when he told stories remembering tobogganing in Wisconsin as a kid, for example. Of course, one of the challenges of having a show with so many favorite songs and traditions is keeping things fresh every year.
At the time of the interview, Bestor was composing new material for the show, including his annual new Christmas carol, which he passes on to the audience to take home in the form of sheet music. He also usually tries to have a loose annual theme, such as this year's "Made in Utah."
One particularly memorable year, Bestor had an old-fashioned chandelier hanging from the ceiling complete with real candles. During intermission, concertgoer Race recalled how Bestor had to run over to Nordstrom to buy a new pair of pants for the bass player, because the wax had dripped on him. The candles were guaranteed not to drip, Bestor said, but they also splashed on a musician's $80,000 cello.
Race said her family has attended Bestor's Christmas show every year for the whole 25-year run. When their daughters were younger, they had a family tradition of giving him a special Christmas gift backstage after the show.
While most Utahns haven't made it to the show every year like the Races, the concert has definitely become a tradition for many Utahns and a fixture in Salt Lake's seasonal lineup.
Want a new carol?
P Kurt Bestor, celebrating the 25th anniversary of his annual Christmas concert, will debut his new holiday carol.
When • Thursday and Friday, Dec. 13-14, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 15, at 2 and 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $17.50-$45, at arttix.org or 801-355-ARTS