For the first time since 2019, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square opened its Christmas concert to the public, bringing to life heartwarming stories, music and faith for a large audience of roughly 15,000.
After being canceled in 2020 and closed to the public in 2021, the annual concert — the choir’s largest undertaking that over three days typically draws more than 60,000 people to downtown Salt Lake City — returned to full form Thursday night, with help from Disney and Broadway star Lea Salonga and renowned British actor David Suchet.
Here are five highlights from the concert, which runs at the Conference Center through Dec. 17 and will air on PBS and BYUtv next year.
1. Lea Salonga sings Christmas classics — and shares her Filipina heritage
The powerful voice behind Disney princesses Jasmine and Mulan, Salonga made her grand entrance on the Conference Center stage and gave feeling to the traditional Christmas tune “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” backed by what she called the “spectacular choir and orchestra .”
The Broadway star, who won a Tony Award for her role in “Miss Saigon,” performed a number of Christmas classics throughout the night, including “Sleigh Ride,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and a stirring rendition of “O Holy Night.”
Salonga also talked about her Filipina heritage and shared the meaning behind the Christmas song “Payapang Daigdig,” which she said is “especially beloved” in the Philippines.
“In my home country, the Philippines, Christmas actually begins in September,” Salonga said. “That’s how much we love the holiday. And it’s not just the decorations, the food and the presents — we love the music.”
Salonga explained how Manila, the capital of the Philippines, was attacked on New Year’s Day in 1942, just a few weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombings. By the time World War II ended three years later, the city was almost completely destroyed, Salonga said. A year later, on Christmas night in 1946, the young musician Felipe Padilla de Leon climbed to the top of the tallest remaining roof, looked out upon the devastation and felt inspired to write a carol of peace.
“It has brought hope and healing to the Filipino people ever since,” she said. “May it bring hope to you this Christmas as well.”
2. The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square
During a recent press conference promoting last year’s Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert, music director Mack Wilberg said he was still busily arranging and writing music for this year’s concert.
The program for Thursday’s concert noted 10 instances where Wilberg was involved in a musical arrangement. While that included numbers with Salonga, it also included moments that put the choir and orchestra directly in the spotlight — like beautiful renditions of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Hosanna in excelsis (based on Canon in D), ” and the traditional English carol “Here We Come A-Caroling,” which all showcased the vast talents of the choir and orchestra.
3. A show-stopping organ solo
The Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert would be incomplete without a show-stopping solo from principal organist Richard Elliott. The audience got that moment with Elliott’s arrangement of the traditional English Carol “On Christmas Night (Sussex Carol),” which showed off Elliott’s fast footwork and earned the organist a long standing ovation.
4. The story of Nicholas Winton
As he walked onto the Conference Center stage, actor Sir David Suchet — well known for his longtime portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot — spoke of his love of family, sharing that this year marks five decades since he met his wife, and recalling how it was “love at first sight.”
With his wife in attendance Thursday night, Suchet proceeded to tell the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, an English stockbroker who worked tirelessly in the months before World War II to save endangered children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by securing visas, finding host families, and raising funds to ensure each child had the necessary money to guarantee passage to England — a sum that today equates to $4,000 US dollars. Suchet shared how parents hid their grief as they embraced their children and sent them away to safety, uncertain if they would ever be reunited.
“Parents waved goodbye, pleading for the strength that only God could provide,” Suchet said.
In total, the 29-year-old Winton helped orchestrate the safe passage of 669 children.
Winton’s only record of this effort was a scrapbook, Suchet said, brimming with pages that listed the names of children and diplomatic correspondents. As the years went on, Winton married and had three children, and rarely spoke of his rescue work — not even to his family. But when his wife uncovered the scrapbook nine months before his 80th birthday, Winton’s humanitarian work came to life after 50 years, leading to an appearance on the BBC show “That’s Life!”
Suchet then paused his narration, allowing for a clip from “That’s Life!” to play on the large screens located on both sides of the stage. In the clip, the host showed Winton’s scrapbook to the audience and explained Winton’s heroic actions 50 years earlier. She then asked if anyone in the audience owed their lives to Winton.
To his surprise, most of the people in attendance stood up.
While not all of the children Winton rescued were accounted for, “the known posterity of his rescued family numbered over 6,000,” Suchet said.
“Gifts of goodness are truly endless,” he said. “As we are blessed, we bless others, and the giving goes on. …The light of God’s goodness in just one person can bring light to many now, and for generations to come.
“Whatever we do, the spark of our tiny effort can fill this world with light.”
Following a lengthy standing ovation for his narration, Suchet then revealed to the audience that the son of Winton, Nicholas Winton Jr., was in attendance and invited him onstage. With emotion, Winton Jr. talked about how his father believed in “active goodness,” actively doing things to help others.
“He spent most of his very long life helping to make the world a better place, and loved doing it,” Winton Jr. said. “And that to me is the essence of the Christmas spirit.”
5. Sharing faith
Both Salonga and Suchet were vocal about their faith throughout the concert. Salonga sang the number “The Story Goes On” from the Broadway musical “Baby,” which chronicles the reactions of couples who are expecting a child.
“Mary is not just another character in the Bible — she is a mother. A first-time mother with a unique role and responsibility,” Salonga said, recalling her own feelings when she learned she was expecting a daughter. “Whether we are daughters, sisters, aunts, mothers or grandmothers, Christmas for us includes thinking about new life coming into the world, and nurturing the next generation.”
In addition to reciting the birth of Jesus Christ, as told in Luke 2, Suchet also shared how he experienced a personal conversion several years ago upon reading Romans 8 in a hotel room while filming in Seattle. The chapter, he said, inspired him to turn to a life of caring and generosity, and reminded him that “we are all God’s children.”
At one point during the concert, Suchet issued a call to action, encouraging those in attendance to dedicate themselves to sharing God’s light through service to others. He asked the audience members to indicate that dedication by lighting up their phones and holding them up high.
“Let it be a symbol of his light and life shining through you to all the world,” he said.
In just a matter of seconds, a sea of lights waved brightly throughout the Conference Center.