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Sutton Foster and Hugh Bonneville highlight choir and orchestra's annual Christmas concert

A distinctly Victorian flair marks this year's concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square, which played to a sold-out LDS Conference Center Thursday night, Dec. 14, in the first of three performances that will conclude Saturday.

From the opening processional featuring dancers performing to the music of a fiddler on stage, to the audience sing-along of “Jingle Bells” conducted by music director Mack Wilberg, to the narration by British actor Hugh Bonneville of a heart-rending 1873 tale of tragedy and triumph, the show evoked an 1800s yuletide feeling.

Bonneville, who played Robert, Earl of Grantham, on the television series “Downton Abbey,” was one of two guest artists this year, the other being Sutton Foster, the Tony Award-Winning Broadway actress and current star of the TV series “Younger.”

“I love playing intimate venues like this,” Foster quipped in ironic reference to the 21,000-seat Conference Center as she greeted the audience following her opening performance of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

“I absolutely love Christmas,” she exclaimed, adding that she begins her Christmas season each year by watching the 1960s TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and she can’t help joining in when the “Peanuts” kids sing “Christmas Time Is Here.”

But this year is different, she said, because she and her husband Ted have adopted a baby girl, Emily. “And now whenever I burst into song, Emily is there as my audience, and so far, she likes my voice.”

The tune from the Charlie Brown show may, in fact, already be Emily’s favorite, Foster said, just before singing it.

Later, recalling childhood memories of listening to “John Denver’s Greatest Hits” on her mom’s 8-track player, she sang her favorite from that album, “Sunshine on My Shoulder.”

“I really wish that my mom could be here tonight, but she passed away a couple of years ago,” she said in introducing the song, “so as I sing this song for all of you, I would also very much like to sing it for her.”

Thereafter, Foster segued into “Pure Imagination,” from the 1971 movie “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

The orchestra’s impeccable performance of the classic Leroy Anderson composition and arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” followed.

Foster then took the stage again performing a medley arranged by associate conductor Ryan Murphy called “The Golden Age of Christmas.” It consisted of three Hollywood engendered Christmas classics: “Snow!” (from “White Christmas”), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (from “Meet Me in St. Louis”) and “Happy Holiday” (from “Holiday Inn”), plus the Kay Thompson song made popular by Andy Williams, “It’s the Holiday Season.”

Then came a real change of pace for these annual concerts, as Wilberg turned to the audience.

“Christmas is a time of music and singing, and not just listening,” the maestro said. “So for the first time in, well, as long as I can remember, we’d like to invite you to sing with us.”

He admonished the audience to watch him “because with 21,000 of us, it’s the only way we’ll stay together.”

Under his baton, performers and audience members then sang “Jingle Bells,” as a wintry motion picture was projected on the wall behind the organ pipes, giving the effect of riding in an immense, 21,000-seat, “one-horse open sleigh.”

Audiences at the annual concert have come to expect each year some new, holiday-themed wizardry from Mormon Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott. They were not disappointed this year, as Elliott performed an intricate arrangement of “I Saw Three Ships,” accompanied by three drummers from the orchestra who kept an eccentric beat and dazzled the audience.

Guest artist Bonneville did not take the stage until late in the concert but performed its highlight. With music from the choir and orchestra as background, and with actors giving a portrayal, Bonneville narrated the tragic story behind the composition of the Christian hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”

Horatio Spafford penned the hymn after the tragic loss in a shipwreck at Christmas time in 1873 of his four daughters who were traveling with his wife, Anna, en route to Paris, where he expected to join them.

In his sorrow, he wrote:

< i>When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,< /i>

< i>When sorrows like sea billows roll;< /i>

< i>Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,< /i>

< i>It is well, it is well with my soul.< /i>

Later, the Spaffords moved to Jerusalem, where they engaged in philanthropic work, culminating in a hospital for orphaned children.

In keeping with tradition, the concert climaxed with Bonneville’s reading from Luke 2 of the birth of the Christ child followed by a stirring performance of the French carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”

Tickets have all been distributed for the remaining two performances of the concert, but would-be attendees are encouraged to come and wait for stand-by tickets, according to the choir’s website. The line forms at the north gate on Temple Square about two hours before the start time of 8 p.m. Stand-by ticket seekers will be seated in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and ushered into the Conference Center as space becomes available.

Sunday’s “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast by the choir and orchestra will feature selected music and guest-artist performances from the evening concerts. No tickets are required for the broadcast in the Conference Center.