Judge Clark Douglas thinks any time that includes nachos is the most wonderful time of the year.
"How nice. It's just me and 20,000 of my best friends."
Regardless of how one feels about the Mormon faith, one has to admire the considerable talent of the all-volunteer Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Dubbed "America's choir" by President Reagan, the group has performed at a wide variety of prestigious events over the course of the last century of so. Since the year 2000, the 360-member choir has performed an annual Christmas concert, adding a large orchestra and noteworthy guests (including Sissel, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Angela Lansbury, Renee Fleming, David Archuleta, and even Walter Cronkite). In 2009, the esteemed Natalie Cole joined the Choir, providing an enjoyable performance that is now being released on DVD for your viewing/listening pleasure.
Being a Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert, the affair is a fairly conservative one, offering mostly traditional arrangements of mostly traditional songs while occasionally cutting to clips of traditional-looking people clapping politely. While this can be a bit of hindrance at times (the attempts at creating an epic spectacle are occasionally undercut by the general timidity of the staging—this thing could use some Broadway flair!), for the most part it's a pleasant change-of-pace. Most Christmas-themed concerts devote themselves to putting some sort of unique personal stamp on old favorites, while the performers in The Most Wonderful Time of the Year devote themselves to creating lush, huge, faithful renditions of familiar melodies.
The concert begins with the choir offering two numbers: "Come, O Come" and "Dance and Sing." These are nice enough, but the presence of Natalie Cole on the following three numbers proves to be a considerable asset. While Cole's performance isn't anything dazzling, she provides a warm, personal touch that prevents the sheer size of the performance from becoming too overbearing. She guides the choir through "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Grown-Up Christmas List" (a song that isn't remotely naughty, so get your mind out of the gutter) and "Caroling, Caroling." Cole then departs to allow the choir time to turn in performances of "For unto Us a Child is Born" from Handel's Messiah and "O Holy Night."
Cole returns for another trio of tunes: a gorgeous "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing," a charmingly low-key take on "The Holly and the Ivy" (just Cole and an acoustic guitar) and of course "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" accompanied by a lovely personal story. Organist Richard Elliot drops by to provide an organ version of "Good King Wenseclas," which serves as a lead-in to the concert's showpiece: a moving Christmas story told by historian David McCullough underscored by gentle orchestral melodies. The reading is accompanied by vintage stills depicting the events McCullough discusses. This is followed by another lengthy piece, a medley of Christmas carols from around the world performed by the orchestra and choir (with some interpretive dance thrown in for good measure).
Things conclude with a choir and orchestra performance of "In the Bleak Midwinter," a scripture reading by Cole from the Book of Luke (the story of Jesus' birth, naturally) and a huge performance of "Angels, From the Realms of Glory" performed by Cole, the choir, the orchestra, the handbell choir and the children's choir.
The DVD looks okay, with a bit of color bleeding at times and rather so-so detail. Still, it's acceptable enough. Where things get genuinely problematic is in the audio department, as the massive Conference Center at Temple Square must have posed some recording issues. Everything sounds too distant; the music lacks punch and intimacy. The echoing effect captures the scale of the performance, but it just isn't a very good recording. As such, it becomes a bit difficult to recommend the disc. Supplements include brief backstage interviews with Natalie Cole and David McCullough.
It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is enjoyable, but the weak DVD audio and video prevent me from suggesting it to the casual viewer. Proceed with caution.
The performance is not guilty, but the disc is.
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