This year, as usual, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concerts will have a theme. But Mack Wilberg isn't saying what it is.
"When everybody knows, the magic is halfway gone," the choir's music director said during a break in the tendinitis-inducing work of finishing orchestrations for the concerts. Even the 360 singers in the choir won't know all the details until Thursday night's dress rehearsal, Wilberg said.
There are a few givens. The choir, guest star Nathan Gunn, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square will perform a mix of sacred and secular Christmas music; organist Richard Elliott will roll out a new arrangement of a familiar carol; dozens of dancers will appear; Jane Seymour will read the Christmas story from the Gospel of St. Luke; and the evening will close with Gunn joining the choir in Wilberg's arrangement of "Angels, From the Realms of Glory."
"But it won't be the same old, same old," promised Scott Barrick, the choir's general manager.
In a phone interview, Gunn said he hopes the concert will be a refreshing change of pace after three years of pops-oriented programs. He's excited to be singing with the choir again; his last appearance in Salt Lake City was as the baritone soloist on a memorable Tanner Gift of Music performance of the Brahms German Requiem in February 1999. The scheduled conductor, the eminent Robert Shaw, died less than three weeks before the concert, leaving the choir's then-associate conductor, Craig Jessop a Shaw protÃ©gÃ© whose own father died within days of Shaw to lead the performance.
"It was a touching, touching show," Gunn recalled. "It was a very emotionally difficult time for everybody, but it led to a really beautiful performance."
The baritone has another fond memory of singing in Utah. In the summer of 1993, he was an ensemble artist with Logan's Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, playing a small role in Gilbert & Sullivan's "Trial by Jury," singing in the chorus of "La bohÃ¨me" and understudying Michael Ballam in "Naughty Marietta."
"It was an amazing summer," Gunn recalled, noting that his career took off soon after.
Now he is one of the world's top opera stars, appearing regularly on nationwide broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that directors often find reasons for him to take off his shirt is a source of amusement for Gunn, who also enjoys a reputation as a family man. Gunn and his wife, pianist Julie Jordan Gunn, are on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where they live with their five children two teenage daughters, a 12-year-old son and 9-year-old boy-girl twins.
"I really enjoy being a father," he said. "Children are funny, and mine are just goofy they're always doing or saying something that makes me burst out laughing." The family usually travels together to summer festivals. During the school year, Gunn has been concentrating more on concert appearances than opera the past couple of seasons so that he can maximize his time at home. The children take turns traveling with him when schedules permit, and he said he plans to bring his wife and youngest son to Salt Lake City.
Barrick and Wilberg acknowledged that despite being a household name for opera buffs, Gunn doesn't have the mainstream celebrity that turned last year's concerts, featuring Utah pop phenom David Archuleta, into scenes reminiscent of Beatlemania.
Wilberg points out that past guests, such as opera star Bryn Terfel and Broadway luminaries Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, also were less well-known in Utah before performing with the choir yet Mitchell's smiling face adorned the sides of TRAX trains a couple of months ago when he sang at Brigham Young University. "People have come to trust the choir" to present quality guest artists, Barrick said.
Remembering last year's Archiemania when hundreds of disappointed patrons were turned away from the overbooked Conference Center Barrick said concert organizers have made some changes. Standby patrons will be invited to wait inside the Salt Lake Tabernacle, and there will be overflow seating with live audio and video feeds in the Tabernacle, Assembly Hall and North Visitors Center as needed.
There are also 5,000 new parking spaces available in the vicinity, and an increased Salt Lake Police Department presence will help with crowd control and traffic flow. Barrick cautioned that patrons on Saturday should give themselves a little extra time due to a free Utah Jazz scrimmage in nearby EnergySolutions Arena that night.
Year of the Gunn
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square present their annual Christmas concerts with baritone Nathan Gunn and narrator Jane Seymour.
Where • LDS Conference Center, 60 N. West Temple, Salt Lake City
When • Thursday, Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, Dec. 16-17, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 18, 9:30 a.m. live broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word" with mini-concert to follow.
Tickets • They're free, but they were distributed long ago. To try your luck at standby seating, go to the north gate of Temple Square; event staff will seat you in the Tabernacle to wait until space becomes available. There will be overflow seating in other Temple Square buildings as needed.
An hourlong special drawn from last year's Tabernacle Choir concerts featuring David Archuleta airs on KUED Ch. 7 and other PBS affiliates nationwide this month.
Utah broadcasts (times are Mountain Standard Time):
Tuesday, Dec. 13, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 11 p.m.
Dec. 23, 8 p.m.
Dec. 25, 10 a.m., 6 p.m. and 3 a.m.
National broadcasts (times are Eastern Standard Time; check local listings):
Tuesday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 17, 4 p.m.
Dec. 23, 9 p.m.
Dec. 24, 9:30 p.m.
Dec. 25, noon and 5 p.m.
O Watch Nathan Gunn's 2008 appearance on "The Colbert Report." http://bit.ly/cB9Wyg