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Guest artists effusive in their praise of Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert experience

They have performed in some of the great venues in the world, yet both guest artists appearing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at this year’s Christmas concert describe the experience as “overwhelming.”

Sutton Foster, Tony Award winning Broadway actress, and Hugh Bonneville, British stage actor and star of British film and television, took questions from news media while seated on the stage of the Conference Center on Friday, Dec. 15, the morning after the concert’s opening performance.

“It’s just really magical,” Foster said. “As soon as I walked on stage, I was overwhelmed by the spirit of the season. I was so nervous, but it all turned into such a celebration of people coming together.”

Bonneville, familiar to millions for his role in the British TV series “Downton Abbey” as Robert, Earl of Grantham, said he has never been a part of an endeavor where the word amateur has applied so well in its truest sense. He pointed out that it comes from the Latin term amator, which means lover.

“The love and the commitment that these people who are volunteering give to this, it’s extraordinary,” he said. “I’ve never seen it before. It’s as professional as professional, if you know what I mean.

“And to know that some 600 people are coming together for the single purpose of a celebration through music and word and dance, it’s a rare experience, and to be able to share it with so many people, not only live but on camera is quite something.”

Foster described the experience as “a dream come true,” one that she is sharing with her husband, Ted, and other family members.

“I told him we have to come back every year; we have to see the show; it has to be part of our tradition,” she said.

Foster has Utah connections stemming from 1999 when she performed in Salt Lake City as part of the touring cast of Les Miserables. She became acquainted then with 8-year-old cast member and local resident Alison Fidel.

“Her father and mother sort of tag-teamed, and they basically adopted me on that tour,” she said of Steve and Melia Fidel. “I just fell in love with their family. …They have just taken me in, and I absolutely adore them.”

At that time, Steve Fidel was a staff writer with the Deseret News and is now at Brigham Young University, where he directs the Universe, the campus news media organization.

The familial bond forged back then is still strong, as the Fidels have attended her wedding and she has attended Alison’s wedding reception.

“That was one of the reasons why I sang at BYU two years ago, and a big reason why I’m here, is because of that family.”

Reached by email at his BYU office, Fidel responded: “Sutton and her family are dearest friends. She is one of the most genuine, down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet. We have considered her as a member of the family since we got to know each other on the ‘Les Mis’ tour. We have been working on getting her here for the Christmas concert for a long time and are thrilled it has worked out this year.”

Bonneville does not have such local connections, and it is only his second visit, but he attributes his presence to the tenacity of the Tabernacle Choir organization’s administrative assistant, whom he jokingly calls “this terrier known as Ron Gunnel.”

“I think ferret is too cruel of a word, but once he has an idea, he doesn’t let it go,” Bonneville joked.

He said Gunnel tried to recruit him for the concert a few years ago, but the actor couldn’t come because he was in the midst of filming the first “Paddington” movie.

“I’m convinced he’s basically a stalker, because I was passing through Salt Lake City airport about 18 months ago, and he accosted me as I was checking out my bags.”

The two men had never met in person, but this time they established a contact that led to the engagement of Bonneville for this year’s concert.

“And I’m thrilled,” he said. “Obviously, the choir’s work is world-famous. This particular concert has been on my radar for a long time, but to actually take part … is not only a great honor but an overwhelming experience.”

“Stepping on the stage of the 21,000-seat Conference Center arena is overwhelming but, at the same time, feels like home, he said. “And I think that’s what the expression of this concert is all about: creating an atmosphere that is both huge in scale but is intimate in content.”

For musical director Mack Wilberg, securing Foster and Bonneville for the concert is as thrilling as it is for the two artists to perform in it.

“I’m not one who attends a lot of Broadway, but I was in New York several years ago, and my wife wanted to go see “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and I said, ‘Well, OK, I’ll go along,’” Wilberg recounted. “I was totally captivated and delighted by that production, and particularly by Sutton Foster, whom I didn’t know at that time, but I have since followed her. And so, when her name several years ago was mentioned, I said, ‘Absolutely!’”

Wilberg added, “I haven’t told Hugh this, but I was in London three or four years ago at Christmas time, and walked past Royal Albert Hall and saw there was a Christmas concert that evening.”

On a whim, Wilberg attended the concert, in which Bonneville was doing a short Christmas reading with the orchestra.

“I remember sitting in the audience and thinking, ‘Ah, wouldn’t that be great if. … But that’ll probably never happen.’ And here we are today. Having both of these artists with us is just really a dream come true.”

Wilberg was asked at the news conference about a new innovation in this year’s concert, his directing the audience in the singing of “Jingle Bells.”

He mentioned the choir being in the Conference Center twice a year for the Church’s general conference, during which the hall is full and the congregation in the middle of the meeting sings a hymn together.

“It can be a bit of a train wreck in terms of being together,” he said. Thus he has always been hesitant to try an audience sing-along during the concert, but felt “if we presented it a certain sort of way and had the opportunity to tell the audience, ‘You really have to listen with your eyes and not with your ears, and watch carefully,’ that maybe we can pull this off.”

The result Thursday evening was “surprisingly good,” he said. “We’ll see what the future brings as far as that sort of event in a concert, but we’re delighted that it went well and was received so well.”

Choir president Ron Jarrett responded to a question about the annual free concert being a gift to the community from the Church. He traced its beginning as an annual event in the Salt Lake Tabernacle for Church employees.

“And then it expanded, and in 2000, when we were able to enter this beautiful facility, we began the tradition of opening it up to many, many more people. Tickets became a commodity, and it has become a sought-after family tradition.”

Wilberg recalled that Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said the facility should be used not only for important Church meetings but for other things that would edify the community and, hopefully, the nation.

“I think that what we do here is part of the vision,” Wilberg said.

The concert is recorded each year for distribution the following year on DVD and for broadcast over PBS. This year’s concert is being recorded for presentation next year by BYUtv in Provo and PBS member station WGBH in Boston.

The recording of last year’s concert, which featured Rolando Villazon, will be aired on BYUtv at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17.

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