Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square typically begins planning for the annual Christmas concert months in advance.
This year, with the world still facing the COVID-19 pandemic, the choir first had to demonstrate the ability to perform and rehearse safely.
The choir's members began to prove they could do that in September, when they restarted rehearsals, at general conference and in live broadcasts, although some choir members later tested positive for COVID-19. The decision was made shortly after general conference in early October to move forward with plans to record a live Christmas concert with only a small audience on three nights in December — Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
That left two months to prepare.
Pull it off, they did. The taped sessions will be used to create a "Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir" TV special, which features guest artists Megan Hilty and Neal McDonough, for PBS and BYUtv in 2022.
Hours before recording the concert Friday night, there was an expression of weary satisfaction on the face of Mike Leavitt, president of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.
"It was a demanding process, but we accomplished it, and I think we've done well," he said.
Leavitt, Hilty, McDonough and Mack Wilberg, the choir's music director, were all on hand Friday afternoon to discuss the concert with reporters prior to the evening performance. Leavitt and Wilberg offered insight into the concert's backstory while Hilty and McDonough expressed excitement for the opportunity to be involved.
The backstory of the 2021 Christmas concert
The choir was "delighted" to learn of the Christmas concert's return.
"It's not only part of their tradition, but it's part of the gift we give to the community and the world," Leavitt said. "There's something special about being able to provide a sense of unity, a sense of peace and healing at Christmastime. The choir has a broad mission, but it is well exemplified at Christmas."
But safety was the No. 1 concern, Wilberg said.
Even with what Leavitt has dubbed the Swiss cheese plan in place, a multi-layered strategy developed for protection as the choir returned to rehearsal, there were members who contracted COVID-19, he said.
"I use the term safely, but it should be noted that it has not been without risk or encounters with COVID," the Leavitt said. "Through the course of the last three months we have had numerous members of the choir who have contracted (COVID-19) and tested positive, but to our knowledge, have not had a single transmission inside the loft."
The choir has participated in a scientific study to track, trace and determine how the virus was passed from person to person.
"Once we had demonstrated safety at each level, we took another step," Leavitt said. "So after general conference, there was a conclusion that we could do this safely — if we were compliant and had the blessings of heaven. Both were important. And the decision was made, we will move forward with the Christmas concert."
Performing for 4,000 in the Conference Center
Each night, The Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra, and Bells at Temple Square is performing for a relatively small audience of masked and socially-distanced people, primarily comprised of choir organization members' families and some leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Leavitt said there are fewer than 4,000 in the 21,000-seat Conference Center each night.
The choir administrators studied components such as the ventilation system to determine how many could people could safely be admitted to the Conference Center.
"We did a lot of modeling to determine how much risk was reduced by a whole series of actions," Leavitt said. "How much risk was reduced by having the audience masked? How much was reduced by having them socially distanced? What was the difference in risk if we had everyone vaccinated? Those were the kinds of things that went into the modeling, and the modeling said if we would follow this protocol, we could produce a safe outcome."
Finding guest artists
With safety secure, the next concern was finding some guest artists.
"Luckily, that came together very quickly, compared to other years," Wilberg said. "Once we had secured our guest artists, we knew where we were headed. ... Little did we know that they brought a little commonality in their backgrounds, so we decided to capitalize on that, which is their Irish ancestry."
Hilty — fresh off her appearance earlier this month in NBC's musical special "Annie Live!" — is well known for her portrayal of Ivy Lynn in NBC's musical drama "Smash," and has appeared in the CBS shows "The Good Wife" and "The Good Fight." Her Broadway credits include Glinda the Good Witch in "Wicked," Doralee Rhodes in "9 to 5: The Musical" and Brooke Ashton in "Noises Off."
She was "overjoyed" to receive an invitation to perform with the choir and be part of the Christmas concert. There was no hesitation on her part.
"Let's just say I cleared everything so that I could be here," Hilty said.
"There is something about standing in this sea of gorgeous voices that are so magnificently trained to sing together in unison. I'm having a little bit of a problem articulating it because it's a feeling more than anything, and it's incredibly powerful to stand in such close proximity of all of that talent and all of that excellent musicianship and then to get to sing with them. It's truly an experience I can't quite put into words, but it feels so decadent."
McDonough, an award-winning actor, has appeared in more than 100 films, including "Captain America" and "Forever Strong." He portrayed Lt. Compton in the World War II miniseries "Band of Brothers" and Sean Cahill in the TV series "Suits." He is a devout Catholic who once was fired from a network show for refusing to do sex scenes.
McDonough said he was scheduled to shoot a Western in Tucson, Arizona, but because of COVID-19, plans changed, leaving his December calendar wide open.
"I'm fairly certain that was divine intervention," he said. "But I couldn't be happier. I was so busy up until about a week ago ... and then I just stopped. Then I could mentally prepare myself for being the narrator for this amazing show. It's really remarkable. It's a blessing upon blessings."
McDonough said he is humbled to serve as the concert's narrator and is impressed with how fast it came together. He's also honored to be working with members of the Latter-day Saint faith, whose heritage reminds him of his own Irish roots.
"To be able to be the narrator that bridges the Catholic faith and the Mormon faith together and to make us realize that we're all here as God's children ... to celebrate that, it's a pretty awesome feeling," he said. "It's all God's work and tonight, he's molded me into the narrator for the most amazing show I've ever been part of."
Sacrifice and greater appreciation for being together
Leavitt and Wilberg both came away from the experience preparing the Christmas concert with greater appreciation for the sacrifice of the choir members and the opportunity to be together.
Leavitt told about choir members staying late for a rehearsal last week and traveling home great distances in snowy conditions, then returning the next day.
"To understand how much choir members sacrifice," he said. "That's been perhaps the most important realization I have is how much they sacrifice, and how much goes into the preparation of this quite amazing production. This is world quality."
Wilberg has been part of the annual Christmas concert since 1999 but says this year is different.
"The thing that stands out for me is just a greater appreciation of being able to be together," he said. "Pre-COVID, we took many things for granted. I think that we've all learned some great lessons through through all of this. For this particular occasion, we're just thrilled to be able to be together, making music again and sharing what we do with so many."