The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has its secret weapon ready for this week’s Christmas concerts: principal organist Richard Elliott, whose solo arrangements invariably earn the first standing ovation of the night.
The content of each solo is a matter of utmost secrecy before performance night, but Elliott hinted this year’s edition will include a call-back to his first featured Christmas solo, 2007’s “I Saw Three Ships.” The tradition had its genesis the year before, when then-Tabernacle Choir music director Craig Jessop needed Elliott to fill 2 minutes while the dancers and guest artist Sissel moved across the large stage. “I did ‘Carol of Birds,’ and it was a good laboratory” for his process, the organist said. “Craig wanted to keep it … so I’ve done it ever since.”
He sees his role as “getting everybody as engaged as possible for the final stretch” of the concert, “kind of a palate cleanser.”
In advance of this year’s concerts, which will feature Broadway star Sutton Foster and British actor Hugh Bonneville in addition to the choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, Elliott shared five organizing principles with The Salt Lake Tribune.
A familiar tune
About eight months before the concerts, Elliott meets with the choir’s music director, Mack Wilberg, who shares the general theme of the program along with a list of carols the choir and guests will be singing. The organist steers away from those tunes to avoid redundancy.
Flash or acrobatics
Elliott is a bit of a showman, dating back to his years with a couple of Baltimore-area rock bands known for pyrotechnics, so he’s always looking to add a bit of pizazz. He put in extra hours perfecting his pedal technique in 2008 while recovering from an arm injury; that Christmas, he brought down the 21,000-seat house when he played the first verse of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” with his feet. Another year, he brought in a slapstick to evoke the crack of a whip in his arrangement of “Sleigh Ride.”
The organist usually weaves other familiar melodies — not necessarily Christmas-related ones — into his main theme. Sometimes those secondary tunes have a thematic relationship to the main one, as when he inserted a few bars of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” into “Shepherds’ Dance.” Other times, they’re just for fun, as when he played the “Flight of the Bumblebee” theme on the pedals in his arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” In 2009, he played three verses of “Good King Wenceslas” in the style of three movements from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite; there were loud chuckles of recognition when the Sugar Plum Fairy made her entrance.
Short running time
Elliott’s solos typically clock in between 2 and 4 minutes, although an elaborate rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” featuring “Sesame Street” star Count Von Count ran nearly 10.
The arrangements are peppered with musical in-jokes. “It’s like one of those Highlights magazine hidden pictures,” he said. If one reference is obscure — like the “Chicks in Their Shells” movement from “Pictures at an Exhibition” embedded in the “six geese a-laying” verse of “The 12 Days of Christmas” — most listeners will pick up on others, such as “Blue Danube Waltz” accompanying the “nine ladies dancing.”
“So people will be asking themselves, ‘Did I hear that melody?’ ” he said. “It keeps them engaged and interested.”
Christmas with the choir
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square will present their Christmas concerts featuring Broadway star Sutton Foster and British actor Hugh Bonneville.
When • Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 14-16, 8 p.m.
Where • LDS Conference Center, 60 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City
Didn’t get tickets? • If you didn’t get one of the free tickets, try the standby line, which starts at the north gate of Temple Square. You’ll be seated in the Tabernacle to wait for available seats in the Conference Center, and you can stay there and watch a live broadcast if you don’t get in.
Also • Foster and Bonneville will appear on the choir’s weekly broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” Sunday, Dec. 17, at 9:30 a.m. in the Conference Center. No tickets are required, but be in your seat by 9:15 — or just tune in to KSL (Channel 5).