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It seems safe to surmise that 19th-century Welsh pioneer John Parry never dreamed that the choir he started would one day share the stage with a runner-up from America's top-rated televised singing competition in a filled-to-capacity 21,000-seat arena, no less. But there was David Archuleta on Friday night, singing his heart out with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in its annual Christmas extravaganza and proclaiming his delight at finding himself in such company.
How did the world of "American Idol" reconcile with Utah's most venerable musical institution? Better than you might have guessed. Canny programming by music director Mack Wilberg and enthusiastic performances by all involved made for a surprisingly enjoyable evening of seasonal favorites.
The thread that loosely tied the program together was the American frontier. Wilberg's opening processional, a lively take-off on the familiar carol "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," featured a flock of dancers in pioneer attire subtly setting the stage for organist Richard Elliott's annual solo, "A Holiday Hoedown," which came toward the end of the evening. Elliott once again astonished the crowd with his virtuosity and wit in this clever fantasia that might better have been titled "Deck Them Halls." (Who else would embellish a Christmas carol with a few bars from "Turkey in the Straw"?)
But of course Archuleta was the main draw. The frenzy for tickets to this free event was even more feverish than usual this year, thanks to the presence of the 19-year-old pop star. Archuleta has a lovely voice that combines an appealing sweetness with surprising strength. He also displayed an impressive range in Friday's show, capped by a spectacular final high note in the concert-closing "Angels, From the Realms of Glory." In between came familiar carols such as "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night," which Archuleta dressed up with some pop stylings; plus a couple of surprises, including the mildly mariachi-flavored "Los pastores a Belén," which he sang in Spanish. Archuleta's collaboration with the 360-voice choir on "Gesù Bambino" was especially harmonious.
The evening's other guest was British actor Michael York, who told the story of John Parry and his journey from New Market, North Wales, to Salt Lake City. The tale was compelling enough, but it was York's masterful delivery, punctuated by a few well-placed Welsh-accented phrases, that really sold the story.
Wilberg and associate conductor Ryan Murphy led the choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square in a handful of other selections. Highlights included "Gloria in excelsis" from Mozart's C Minor Mass and "Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres," the closing chorus from Ralph Vaughan Williams' magnificent Christmas cantata "Hodie."
Catherine Reese Newton is a music critic. Contact her at email@example.com or 801-257-8616. Twitter: @cathycomma
Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert
The teen pop star seems right at home with the Utah musical institution.
With • Soloist David Archuleta, narrator Michael York, Orchestra at Temple Square, Bells on Temple Square, conductors Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy, and organist Richard Elliott
Where • LDS Conference Center, 60 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City
When • Reviewed Friday, Dec. 17; repeats Saturday, Dec. 18, at 7:30 p.m.
Running time • 90 minutes; no intermission
Also • The performers will be featured on "Music and the Spoken Word" Sunday, Dec. 19, at 9:30 a.m. (KSL Channel 5, radio 1160AM) and give a mini-concert immediately afterward.
Tickets • The free tickets, among the most hotly coveted in town, were distributed long ago, but would-be concertgoers can try their luck in the standby line that forms at the north gate of Temple Square Saturday at 6 p.m. or Sunday at 7:30 a.m.