This year marks the 20th “Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir” special, where guest artists join combined choirs of some 500 voices. The holiday program is presented by Boston public media station GBH and is produced by BYUtv (which broadcasts the special on Dec. 17).
The program will air on KQED in San Francisco on Dec. 12 (8 p.m.), Dec. 22 (9 p.m.), and Dec. 25 (8 p.m.) and on KCET and PBS SoCal in Los Angeles at various times through Dec. 25. It stars Broadway and Disney singer Lea Salonga and actor David Suchet, who appeared as Hercule Poirot in 70 episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot over 24 years.
Salonga is the star of Mulan, Aladdin, Miss Saigon, and other Disney movies and musicals. She is singing Christmas songs in the show, some in her native Tagalog. Suchet narrates the story of Nicholas Winton, an English stockbroker who saved the lives of hundreds of endangered Jewish children in the months leading up to World War II.
“I like to think that, in whatever language, music transcends every man-made barrier,” says Salonga. “There is one Filipino song that I have just been loving to perform that’s about finding peace, quiet, and hope amidst chaos and devastation, and it’s one of the most beautiful Christmas songs of any language.”
About performing in the special, Salonga says, “It feels like a gift to have been there in such an incredible space, with everybody from the musicians to members of the crew and the little kids who get to dance, all of whom met us with kindness at every step.”
Among Salonga’s performances in the show is a WWII-era song in Tagalog, “Payapang Daigdig” (Peaceful world), which shares a message of finding peace and hope amid devastation. Classical pieces include Felix Mendelssohn’s “And Then Shall Your Light Break Forth,” along with holiday favorites such as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
On Christmas night in 1946, just a year after WWII’s end, a young Filipino musician named Felipe de León climbed on top of some of the highest ruins in the city and composed “Payapang Daigdig” to words by the Filipino journalist, author, and editor Brigido Batungbakal.
This carol is regarded as the Filipino equivalent of the Austrian “Silent Night,” as both carols refer to the stars as harbingers of peace in the world. They’re featured together in the special in an arrangement by Mack Wilberg, made especially for Salonga and the Tabernacle Choir.
“I’ve appeared with other orchestras, but never in a space like this and never with a choir like this,” says Suchet. “Yet the more I worked with everybody, including the wonderful staff and the crew, the space seemed to warm up.
“Being there with the choir and the amazing talents that they give so generously from their hearts was tremendous. I know where that sound comes from, and if it doesn’t come from the heart, then the audience doesn’t feel it. The Tabernacle Choir makes us feel it, and it is such a privilege to be on the stage knowing that we are all together.”
Participating artists are the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, Bells at Temple Square, and Gabriel Trumpet Ensemble. Performances were filmed in 2022 in front of live audiences in Salt Lake City’s 21,000-seat Conference Center at Temple Square.
Over the past two decades, the annual television broadcast has featured stars such as Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Angela Lansbury, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Kelli O’Hara, Santino Fontana, Gladys Knight, Megan Hilty, Natalie Cole, Sutton Foster, David Archuleta, Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt, John Rhys-Davies, Hugh Bonneville, Richard Thomas, Jane Seymour, Neal McDonough, David McCullough, and many more.
Working with Salonga and Suchet “was a pure delight,” says Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra, “and as you take in all that they have done as artists, you realize that they truly are the embodiment of the season of light that we speak to with this year’s Christmas concert special.
“Throughout their impactful careers, they have been tremendous examples of achieving excellence while continuing to be a force for good. We are proud to share their powerful voices through this performance with everyone and celebrate our inspiring message of kindness and peace.”
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is a world-renowned chorus affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and credited with over 4,900 episodes of its weekly live performance series Music & the Spoken Word. The program is the longest continuing network broadcast in history, now in its 95th year. The choir has traveled around the world performing in acclaimed concert halls and for the inaugurations of seven U.S. presidents.
The choir has won four Emmy Awards and a Grammy Award (with multiple nominations), was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2003, and was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2015. The ensemble has released over 200 recordings, which have earned two platinum and five gold albums and hit No. 1 on Billboard’s classical music charts 15 times.