Guest Soloist Evokes Christmas Energy and Compassion in Performance with Choir, Orchestra

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 9 December 2016

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square perform their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8–10, 2016.  Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

When internationally acclaimed operatic tenor Rolando Villazón was a boy growing up in Mexico, Christmas was his favorite time of year, not just for the presents, food, family togetherness, and singing.

“The most important above all was this beautiful energy that I suddenly felt,” he told the audience December 8 at the opening performance of this year’s Christmas concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square. “Everybody I knew felt more gentle, more genuine, more full of compassion. … It was a very wonderful and warm sensation that gave me hope as a little child when I was looking at that and saying, ‘That’s the world I would like to live in, with this kind of people.’”

Mr. Villazón, who now makes his home in France—where he hosts his own television show seen in France and Germany—filled the role of both vocal soloist and narrator for this year’s concert.

As such, a highlight of the program was his reading of Hans Christian Andersen’s bittersweet tale “The Little Match Girl.”

“It captures the importance of compassion, humanity, hope, and love,” he said. “It reminds us there are people out there alone. There are people out there that don’t have shelter, that need our warmth, our breadth, and sometimes just to say, ‘You are there, I am here, and we are both human beings.’”

With the choir and orchestra then providing background music, he gave the reading as a costumed actress portrayed the girl caught out in winter’s bitterness. Ghostly images of her Christmas imaginings were projected on a screen above her as she struck match after match.

Another highlight in the concert was a surprise that the guest artist had in store for his largely LDS audience.

Some years ago, he said, he was singing a new production of the Offenbach operas Tales of Hoffmann in Munich, Germany. There, he encountered a young mezzo-soprano, “a very talented, wonderful singer and artist, a very gentle and wonderful person.”

They became good friends.

Rolando Villazón performs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square during their Christmas concert in Salt Lake City on December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Rolando Villazón performs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square during their Christmas concert in Salt Lake City on December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square perform at their Christmas concert in Salt Lake City on December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Rolando Villazón and Angela Bower perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City on December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

 

“She happens to be a member of the Church,” he said, “so I was very interested to listen to what she had to tell me—all about the Church and its philosophy and the spirit of it.”

He said she started her career singing in her ward choir in Phoenix, Arizona, then “grew up to be a wonderful soloist. She is currently having an amazing career. She has toured the world and appeared in the best opera houses.

“She told me, ‘I remember watching those wonderful concerts with the Tabernacle Choir, and I used to dream one day I would sing with them.’ So when I was invited to sing here I thought, ‘We need to make this dream come true.’”

The artist is Angela Brower. Mr. Villazón invited her on stage, where she sang the French carol “Il est né, le divin Enfant,” and together they performed a medley of American Christmas favorites.

Both artists are Grammy Award nominees for 2017 in the category of Best Opera Recording for their work on an album of Mozart music, Le nozze di Figaro. The same album includes Sonya Yoncheva, also nominated for a Grammy for that album. She and Villazón were both soloists on the choir and orchestra’s recent release of Handel’s Messiah.

Puppetry set a whimsical tone for the concert during an opening processional as children and youth came down the aisles of the LDS Conference Center bearing giant figures of a camel and a donkey.

Mr. Villazón then performed “Deck the Hall,” followed by the Spanish carol “Cancion para la Navidad.”

The choir’s classical virtuosity was showcased in a set of “Three Alleluias,” one each by Handel, Caccini, and Ginastera, contrasting in flavor with the first being animated, the second subdued, and the third ethereal.

The orchestra was featured on a “Miniature Overture” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and on “Parade of the Wooden Soliders,” augmented by child, youth, and adult dancers dressed in 19th-century garb.

Frequent viewers each year of the Christmas concerts of the choir and orchestra have come to expect some sort of artistic tomfoolery on the Conference Center pipe organ by Richard Elliott, generally his own playful arrangement of some Christmas classic.

This year, he was joined by fellow Mormon Tabernacle organists Clay Christiansen and Andrew Unsworth, perhaps the first time that six hands have played the Conference Center’s organ console at the same time.

In addition to the music, they performed something of a Chinese fire drill a time or two, switching places literally without missing a beat, as they played their variation on “We Three Kings,” laced with essences from an organ toccata and “Hall of the Mountain King.”

As usual in these concerts, the organ segment brought a standing ovation.

In keeping with tradition, the concert climaxed with Mr. Villazón’s reading of the account of the birth of Christ in Luke, followed by the finale with all performers joining together in the majestic French carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”

In cooperation with BYUtv, the concert is being recorded for presentation over PBS stations, in keeping with past practice. Audio and DVD releases of each year’s concert are typically produced for sale during the following Christmas season.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square perform their annual Christmas concert in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Dancers perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Dancers perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Dancers perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Dancers perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Dancers perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Dancers perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square perform their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square perform their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Rolando Villazón performs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Angela Brower performs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square perform their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square perform their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, and Bells on Temple Square perform their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City, December 8, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.