It’s been a whirlwind few days for Lea Salonga.
As the guest artist for this year’s Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert, she had to adjust to the “overwhelming sight” of the 21,000-seat Conference Center. Her voice continues to adjust to the altitude and lack of humidity in Utah. She’s been processing an overwhelming feeling of gratitude following her opening concert with the choir Thursday night — an especially intense feeling as live performances became a thing of the past during the pandemic.
But one of her favorite parts about performing with the Tabernacle Choir — the thing that really makes her face light up — is something concertgoers don’t get to see: the rehearsals with music director Mack Wilberg.
“He’s not always the nicest person,” Salonga said with a big laugh during a media event with reporters at the Conference Center Friday afternoon, clarifying that Wilberg has, in fact, been very nice to her during her stay in Salt Lake City (Wilberg was sitting directly to her right). “He’s a taskmaster to get as excellent a performance as he can out of 300 or so people… and it’s fun. I take pleasure in watching how a group of people are being rehearsed, and that’s actually a blessing to have someone as strict as him at the helm. It’s been a fantastic experience.”
Wilberg’s devotion to the annual Christmas concert — which this year involved him composing or arranging music for 10 pieces in the program — led to a moving opening night featuring holiday classics, a special Christmas song from the Philippines, Salonga’s home country, and a stirring narration from British actor Sir David Suchet that detailed the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the brink of World War II.
The story of Sir Nicholas Winton — ‘a call to action’
When Suchet received the script for Winton’s story, he said he became emotional as he read it out loud for the first time.
“I have lost relatives in Auschwitz myself,” said Suchet, who is well known for his longtime portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. “I know my own history, my own past. And this is a message that needs to go out. And people need to know about what Nicholas Winton did.
“I think of Christmas in Ukraine, what’s happening now and how they will be feeling,” Suchet later added. “I cannot believe the world is in the state it is in. After so much history of tragedy and pain and loss — and we’re still there. When will we ever learn? We need to hear the message of Christmas more and more and more. And this show is the wonderful message, and it should go out to everybody.”
The importance of Winton’s story helped both Suchet and Nicholas Winton Jr., the son of Winton who was a surprise guest for the Christmas concert, adapt to the large Conference Center venue.
As a classically trained actor who spent 16 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Suchet said he is accustomed to more intimate theaters with a capacity ranging from 600 to 1,000, and that he felt complete “terror” when he saw the Conference Center for the first time time.
Winton Jr., meanwhile, said he found the Conference Center “hugely intimidating,” but that his fear dissipated as Suchet narrated his father’s story. He said he was moved to tears as Suchet encouraged concertgoers to dedicate themselves to serving others.
“I started to feel that the details of the story aren’t as important as the message that the story carries,” he said with emotion. “And I guess that’s what carries me through, is that for me, this wasn’t a history lesson last night. This is a story with a call to action, and that helps sustain me, because trying to fill my father’s shoes is not possible. So my small part is to help bring the story to people who haven’t heard it, with the message that that could have been any one of us.
“We just have to get off the couch and do something,” he continued. “Instead of complaining, somebody should fix it — it should be you. And I guess that’s what sustains me through the blind terror of standing in front of so many people in such a charged emotional environment.”
An unforgettable, inspirational concert
Salonga has performed with BYU’s performing arts groups a few times over the past decade, but this Christmas concert marks her first appearance with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Both Salonga and Suchet said they didn’t have much familiarity with the choir up until this point, but that taking part in the Christmas concert has been a memory of a lifetime.
“I’m not going to forget that sound, and being enveloped by it,” Salonga said.
Suchet said he contacted his friend and fellow actor, “Downton Abbey” star Hugh Bonneville — who narrated the 2017 Christmas concert — to get a better understanding of the experience. He said Bonneville was “full of admiration and praise,” telling him that he would return to England a different man.
“Coming here, it got even better,” Suchet said of the choir. “They are so committed. They are so wonderful, so disciplined, and so full of joy. They love what they do, and this is infectious. That commitment and belief in what they’re doing is wonderful to be a part of.
“I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
Through their music and words, Salonga and Suchet said they hope the Christmas concert will be just as memorable — and inspirational — for their audience.
“Just hearing one person’s story, sometimes that’s enough to start the ball rolling for other good people to do good things,” Salonga said. “And so I’m just hoping that if even one or two people take that and create a change in the world, then you know, it will have been a wonderful thing to have been a part of this.”