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Monday, December 15, 2014

MoTab Muppets Christmas Concert

by Quinn Rollins:

I haven't ever been to a Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert. In between my dislike of crowds and the feeling that I get about ten hours of choiring every April and October (I know the choir doesn't sing at every General Conference session, but some kind of choir does), I feel like get my fill. I've heard good things about them, but choir music just isn't my thing, man. I've heard good things about their Christmas concerts, but I figure I'll let someone else take those tickets who really wants to go.

This fall when they announced the guest performers for the 2014 Christmas concert, I knew that would change. Because it was my people. Friends I had grown up with, who I looked up to, personal heroes and co-conspirators and teachers. The Sesame Street Muppets. A guy named Santino Fontana was on the bill too, but you throw in nine of the most famous characters in television history, and they're going to take over the show. So I started plotting.

I've never even tried to get tickets to a Christmas concert before, so this is the first time I realized what a big deal it was. They’re free, but given away via online lottery. You register via email, and wait to see if you've won. It's a kind of gambling that the church endorses, so I figure it was okay. I considered registering via every email account I have, but I just did it from my personal account, and had my wife do it through hers. And we lost. We lost big. On Facebook I saw other people celebrating "yay, we scored tickets, my kid will be so happy!" … when their kid doesn't even watch Sesame Street, they're just plugged into their iPad all day.

Happily, a friend and co-worker is a member of the choir, and even though I felt like a tool asking, I tried as casually as possible to ask if she happened to get dozens of tickets for friends and family members and co-workers. She said that she got eight. There are four in my family, but I figured if I got one, I'd still go and ditch them. Two, my wife and I would drop the kids like they never existed. Three, we'd pick our favorite child that day and take him. Happily, she came through with four tickets. Which was both kind and prevented me from some kind of passive aggressive revenge that would play out over the course of years. Also, crying in the office bathroom stalls. Again.

Over the weeks leading up to the concert, the choir would reveal a Sesame Street character at a time, bit by bit. So she'd come by my cubicle and whisper, "We have confirmation of Grover. We have Grover." A few days later, "Cookie Monster is a go!" And each time she did, I'd get a little bit happier.

The night of the concert, we got downtown at about 5:30, even though the concert didn't start until 8:00. Ate at the Nauvoo Café in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building … which if you haven't been, go. Get their turkey cranberry sandwich. I don't care if you don't normally like cranberry and turkey. Go there. Eat it. If your testimony of either the gospel or food is on wobbly ground, it will strengthen both. Eating this sandwich may save you. Go. We got to the conference center, got our programs, got to our seats. Looking at the program, I was disappointed to see that while there were nine different Sesame Street characters, they were only featured in three songs in the program. One was a Sesame Street Medley, the other a pair of Christmas songs. I braced myself for a slow evening punctuated by some true happiness, and let the show begin.

About ten seconds into the first number, you realize how big this production actually is. You have the 360-member choir, but there's also the orchestra. And then dancers start doing backflips across the stage and down the aisles. And then bell-players. And the lighting. And wreaths larger than my entire house hung on the organ. It's a spectacle, and it's amazing. Almost amazing enough to stop my worrying about the Muppets not getting enough concert time.

After the first number, Big Bird wandered on stage, a little bit lost and a little early. Conductor Mack Wilberg welcomed him, explained he was early, but that he and his friends were welcome to stay and be part of the show. Besides Big Bird, you had Bert and Ernie popping up to be stage managers, Grover and Cookie Monster doing behind the scenes work in the control room, Elmo going over to Temple Square to film some extra bits, and Rosita and Abby Cadabby (they're newer than when you were watching Sesame Street, but you're frigging old, get over it) would join the choir. The concert proceeded, but between most of the numbers, there would be a Sesame Street interstitial—Grover trying to figure out the control room, Cookie Monster’s quest to find Christmas cookies. A unifying theme to the evening was Elmo finding out that Christmas was "more" than just the music or the decorations, and his filmed bits and his role on stage was to find that "more." Big Bird got to conduct a number (which he's done before for the Boston Pops and several other orchestras, so he's a pro), and Ernie had time to harass Bert. They were more part of the show than I expected, causing the chaos I had hoped for, but not overwhelming the rest of the concert.

The concert itself was better than I had expected. A good mix of traditional Christmas music and new pieces I'd never heard before, it included classical pieces by Tchaikovsky, Bach and Rossini, but also new arrangements by conductors Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy, and organist Richard Elliott. The guest performer Santino Fontana – Prince Hans from Frozen as I found out—was very good as both a singer and emcee for the evening. He stopped just short of lounge singer in a few places, but fit the mood of the evening perfectly.

I was surprised at how … secular the evening felt. I mean, yes, it's a Christmas concert. But as someone who has only attended General Conference sessions in the 21,000 seat Conference Center, I was only used to that space as an arena-sized chapel. I was used to it being a little uncomfortable and being alternately bored and enlightened. This—was fun. Some of that was the Sesame Street characters, but a lot of it was the staging and the lighting and other things contributing to an atmosphere of a community event, not necessarily a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints event. I’m sure 94% of the attendees were LDS … but this was something I could see me inviting non-Mormon friends to. It was more fun than preachy, more about brotherhood and community than about doctrinal divisions. There was the requisite reading of Luke 2 (after which my son turned and hissed "and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown," because I’m raising him right), but there wasn't a sermon or lecture or anything that would alienate my non-Mormon or non-Christian or militant atheist friends and family members.

The highlight of the evening was an arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas that had organist Richard Elliott working through the number with the help of Count Von Count, who had his own organ pop up behind Elliott. As the Count counted the days of Christmas, providing commentary on each day's gifts, "Birds, more birds! My true love has a thing for birds!" Elliott went to frigging town on the organ. I don't know much about music, but he was amazing. Jaw-dropping. Inserting musical jokes ala Victor Borge, at time playing multiple songs at once, both complementing the other and somehow clear and distinct—it blew 21,000 people away. At the end of that number, people leapt to their feet. Not the typical Utah standing ovation—our people will stand up for everything—but a true, heartfelt, ZOMG I can't believe what I just saw, show-stopping ovation. Granted, it took me a few claps to realize people were probably clapping for Elliott, not the Count, but I stayed standing anyway. I've never liked The Twelve Days of Christmas … this will forever be the definitive version for me.

This concert was a great gift. To the church, to the community, to my family. I can see myself trying for the ticket lottery again, even though it will be a Muppet-free concert. There were several points in the concert where I felt the magic of Christmas. The magic of childhood. The magic of being loved. I'm not sure if that's what the concert was for, but my heart grew three sizes that day. I'm glad we went.

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Quinn Rollins is a history teacher in Salt Lake City. He’s got a wife, two sons, and more LEGO than any adult should have. Ever. He’s currently the deacon’s quorum advisor, because evidently he enjoyed the premortal life and is condemned to live his days out on this earth with 12 and 13 year old boys. Twitter: @jedikermit
 photo Line-625_zpse3e49f32.gifImage credit: Salt Lake Tribune.

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