By Jeff Westover
They call it North America's premiere Christmas music event. Attended locally by over 80,000 people and watched via video by millions on PBS and on DVD, the annual Christmas concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a guest artist usually "sells out" in less than two hours. Just as millions have come to love these events we have made it our own tradition here at My Merry Christmas to attend and review the annual concert.
This year's guest artist is Sissel, a Norwegian singer most recognized in the United States for her haunting vocals on the soundtrack of the movie "Titanic". She has performed on some of the highest profile stages around the world including the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. While her name may not be instantly recognizable her signature sound and masterful vocal control most certainly is. In this year's Christmas performance with the Choir Sissel simply sparkles.
The 2006 Christmas performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square contrasts significantly with past events. Each guest artist lends a quality and a presence that defines the annual performance. Last year's diva-like performance of Rene Flemming was brassy. The year before Audra MacDonald's Broadway-style delivery and complex renditions of traditional Christmas fare was somewhat showy.
But with Sissel the signature is subtle and nuanced. Each note rings like a bell with sound so pure and feeling so warm it melts the heart. In years past Christmas was delivered. This year Christmas was felt. It was wrapped around the listener, tied on with a bow and lovingly placed beneath the tree. Just as Frederica Von Stade and Bryn Terfel charmed the Salt Lake City audience with their brand of Christmas cheer, so too does Sissel connect with her humility and masterful vocal talent.
Even the Choir seemed a little more sensitive this year -- and never have they shown a program that more significantly showcases the contrasting conducting styles of Craig Jessop and Mack Wilberg. Whether it is the somewhat energetic and gleeful style of Jessop in Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella or the subtle longing of Wilberg in Away in a Manger the impact of each selection was felt.
Choir member and solist Shane Warby performed a simple and rich Irish carol, characteristically arranged by Wilberg, that was beautifully delivered. Warby's voice has been momentarily showcased in the past with the Choir's traditional Nigerian Carol, Betelehemu. His performance with Wexford Carol leaves us wanting to hear more of his creamy-smooth baritone.
The Choir astounds with their unity. From a capella transitions in the tear-jerking Away in a Manager to the power showcased as a "choir of angels" in Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful nothing, it seems, is impossible for this impossibly large body of musicians to perform. Sissel noted in the news conference preceding the Friday night performance the same thing: "There are a few moments when I'm not singing, and I stand and listen to all these beautiful voices and cry," she said.
Perhaps it is that appreciation that made Sissel's own contributions so significant. For all of the world-class talent that we have seen work with the Choir and the Orchstra never has a voice blended with such purity as Sissel's. Their's is a vocal marriage most heavenly. To take a bland tune such as In the Bleak Mid-Winter and turn it into a heartfelt and worshipful prayer is a miracle to witness.
Sissel likewise performed a song written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, of Abba fame. Like an Angel Passing through My Room is appropriately titled for Sissel and can be listened to only in wonder.
In attending these events I have also noted some differences in the nightly audiences. Thursday's performance is always technically labeled a "dress rehersal". The audience on this night is more relaxed, both in dress and behavior. Sissel kept the Thursday night crowd on the edge of their seats and many jumped to applaud and cheer. Friday's crowd was more refined -- somewhat more formal in dress and demeanor. Their reaction, while more subdued, was equally appreciative and sustained.
On a personal level, the Christmas concerts live on each year on DVD in our home. We play them all. But year after year the performances we come back to are the ones where the pure love of Christ is celebrated. Whether it be What Shall We Bring to the Babe in the Manger?, Silent Night following Walter Cronkite's narration or the entire Von Stade/Terfel performance we definitely have our favorite selections. The 2006 Choir, Orchestra and performance by Sissel have expanded our list by a large degree.