Making Christmas music is simple, according to Kurt Bestor, if you know one secret: sleigh bells.
“These turn any song into a Christmas song,” Bestor told a recent audience at the Salt Lake City Shriners Hospital, one of a series of small shows he performs for charity organizations as he revs up for his annual Christmas concerts.
To demonstrate, Bestor plays a few bars of a rock classic, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” on the piano. Then he plays the same chords while shaking the sleigh bells, and suddenly Eric Clapton sounds more like Kris Kringle.
In reality, there’s a knack to Christmas music — one that Bestor, the Salt Lake City-based composer and musician, has perfected over three decades.
His annual extravaganza, “A Kurt Bestor Christmas,” marks its 32nd year, and its third in the Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, with shows Dec. 12-14. He follows that up with a more intimate show, Dec. 21-25, at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.
Though Bestor, now 61, is a bit skittish about the word “tradition,” that’s what his concerts have become for many Utahns.
“People started going, ‘We always come to your concerts. Now my kids are old enough, we’re going to bring them to the concerts.’ And then it was, like, ‘We got engaged at your concert, so now I’m going to bring my child,’” Bestor said in a recent interview. “I kind of felt like, ‘I don’t want to let people down.’ This is part of their year.”
Christmas, he said, fits in with Utah’s image of itself. “The rest of the world can make fun of us, but we love nice, sweet things,” Bestor said. “We’re nice people, and Christmas is nice.”
It took time, and effort, for Utahns to embrace Bestor’s version of Christmas, which he said began for a crass, commercial reason.
“I was releasing an album, and nobody knew who I was,” he said. “I said, ‘I love Christmas. Why don’t we do Christmas songs? And the Christmas songs, people will love, and hopefully they’ll like my version, and then they’ll get to know me through these songs.’”
Experts told Bestor he was nuts. “[They] said, ‘That’s a stupid idea. Christmas never sells,’” Bestor recalled. “At the time, nobody had Christmas albums. There was no Christmas section [in the record store].”
Now, Bestor noted, there’s a lot more competition in the Christmas concert calendar — both from touring shows and, most famously, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s annual Christmas shows at the Conference Center. Back in 1988, though, Bestor had the field to himself.
The producer of Bestor’s first holiday album insisted he stage a concert to promote the record. Rather than choose a smaller venue, Bestor went big and booked Abravanel Hall, which seats more than 2,700 people. That became Bestor’s holiday home through 2015. In 2016, he moved into the just-opened Eccles Theater, which seats about 300 fewer people.
That first year, Bestor said, he and his team employed a little subterfuge to get free publicity. “We got on the phone and started calling radio stations and disguising our voice, saying, ‘Hey, I really like that Kurt Bestor stuff here at the garage,’” Bestor said. “We created this mystique … for this artist that nobody really knew.”
Now, fans know Bestor’s Christmas shows, which puts him in a bind. “It’s not ‘The Nutcracker,’ where you repeat the same music. Every year, it’s kind of different. There’s about 30% different and 70% of the hits,” Bestor said. “The only problem is after you do so many years, people just want to fill the whole concert up with your hits.”
Having a guest star — this year, it’s tenor Nathan Pacheco, a crowd favorite in Utah — always brings some variety, Bestor said. He also likes to do new arrangements of his better-known songs; for example, this year, a children’s choir will perform his standard “Prayer of the Children,” which he wrote during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. For this year’s show, it will be performed partly in Arabic.
“I don’t step on stage knowing what I’m going to say,” Bestor said. “I change it up. I freshen it up.”
In contrast to the big Salt Lake City shows, his Park City concerts are more intimate — with just himself on piano, or with a small combo.
“You get people who are up skiing, and they go, ‘Let’s have a little Christmas celebration.’ And they come down and they go, ‘Wow, I had no idea,’” Bestor said of his Park City audiences.
Last year, Bestor added a new series to his end-of-year schedule: His “Peace on Earth” concerts, in which he plays solo for small groups from charity organizations. This year, that included the Shriners Hospital, the Salt Lake Veterans Home, Primary Children’s Hospital, and a show for veterans at This Is the Place State Park.
“I feel like I take a lot at Christmas. I take your money, you buy my CDs. I felt a little dirty,” Bestor said. The charity shows “kind of righted the ship a little bit. … It’s cool. It’s not very professional. It’s just me and an out-of-tune piano.”
Bestor is a multifaceted musician, having scored movies and done arrangements for classical artists. (On the day of his interview with The Tribune, he was in a studio in North Salt Lake conducting orchestrations for an album for the violinist Jenny Oaks Baker.) Being pigeonholed as Utah’s “Mr. Christmas” can still rankle him, but just a bit.
“There was a time when it used to bother me. I was like, ‘No, let me score that horror movie.’ But I’m OK with it, because it’s not a bad thing,” Bestor said. “Maybe my age has told me I can’t be all things to all people. I’m a sum of all my music.”
KURT BESTOR IN SALT LAKE CITY
The 32nd annual “A Kurt Bestor Christmas” concerts, this year featuring special guest Nathan Pacheco.
Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City
When • Thursday, Dec. 12, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 14, 2 and 8 p.m.
Tickets • From $27 to $49.50, at arttix.artsaltlake.org
KURT BESTOR IN PARK CITY
An intimate performance, with Kurt Bestor playing solo and with a jazz combo.
Where • Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., Park City
When • Saturday, Dec. 21, 8 p.m.; Sunday through Wednesday, Dec. 22-25, 6 p.m.
Tickets • $34 and $40, at egyptiantheatrecompany.org