Snow or No, “Madison Symphony Christmas” Is Here

DeMain and the usual huge guest roster launch musical holiday cheer

Ok, I’ll admit it: After attending my seventh consecutive “A Madison Symphony Christmas” (out of the 23 that John DeMain has led as music director of the MSO), this feels more like a report than a review. After all, who critiques the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie (and all the rest of your favorite holiday feast items) when, year after year, expectations are met and the immediate response is a range of contented sighs and smiles?

The formula is so tried and true, the full house at Overture Hall Friday night would probably revolt if there were any significant omissions (but there were some better than usual surprises!). Start with the MSO, add the Madison Symphony Chorus (well trained as always by Beverly Taylor), a couple of the Madison Youth Choirs (the Boychoirs and high school boys and younger girls, the “Ragazzi” and “Cantabile” groups, respectively, prepared by MYC artistic director Michael Ross), for the twelfth year the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, under Tamera and Leotha Stanley, and a guest artist, this year the soprano Sylvia McNair. Be sure to end the first half with “Hallelujah” from Messiah, and the evening with the audience sing-along; then mix old favorites and less familiar treats, and along the way feature an MSO member or two.

So here are the highlights—and you are urged to brighten this first weekend of December by catching the repeat performances Saturday night or Sunday afternoon: Trumpeter John Aley breezed through the brassy declarations that the choruses and orchestra turned into fugal figures in J.S. Bach’s “Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens” from Cantata No. 148. Acting concertmaster Suzanne Beia got the biggest solo turn of the night with an assured reading of Vivaldi’s “Winter” Concerto from The Four Seasons. The MYC Boychoirs were radiant in Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” and delivered a warm reading of Wilberg’s “One December Bright and Clear.”

McNair made her first half appearance in a set of three well-known Christmas songs, in new arrangements by Brian Eads. “O Holy Night” is hands-down my all-time favorite Christmas carol—and I tend to bristle if it’s messed with too much. The opening of Eads’ arrangement made me fret, but McNair had most of the great melody most of the time, and the use of the chorus was effective. But a real winner was “Mary, Did You Know?” Opening with a quote from “What Child Is This?,” Eads’ handling of the simple yet profound song was made even stronger in his orchestration and use of the chorus. “The First Noel” went a little farther—almost soupy, one is tempted to say—but McNair and the assembled forces put it over.

Three movements from John Rutter’s marked the official close of the first half; I usually find his music something like “sacred-lite,” but these excerpts were worth it just to hear the young treble singer Ethan Staver deliver the solos.

As for “Hallelujah,” the most noteworthy aspect was that relatively few in the audience stood (perhaps more and more are believing DeMain and others in hearing that the old King George rising during the premiere is dubious at best), and they also seemed to take his advice not to sing it (unless they know it). That allowed more of us to enjoy the massed chorus and the MSO give us the amped up version.

The big surprise came early in the second half; McNair was listed to sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Even before the concert began, my keen-eyed wife said “Isn’t that song a duet?” Indeed…and who do you think matched McNair phrase for tricky phrase, and had a ball slipping into the role of cajoling sweetheart? None other than our own maestro. Of course, DeMain comes by his musical theater chops honestly; he was quite the child and teen-aged actor at the Youngstown Playhouse back in the day (as you can eventually read all about, when I finally finish his biography). In the end, DeMain got a way bigger standing ovation on this night than the “Hallelujah” chorus did. It really was a priceless moment.

McNair switched gears with two gems, one the lesser known “Grown-Up Christmas List” by Linda Thompson-Jenner and David Foster (1990). Assisted here and in the ensuing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” by the Madison Symphony Chorus, the she made a strong case for the latter being associated with the Christmas season.

It might not always be literally true that the best is saved for last by having the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir close the program, but it does always raise the energy level another notch when they do. The three dozen singers under the Stanleys sound better than ever, and gave us arrangements of Hutchins’ “Emmanuel,” “Away in a Manger/Little Jesus Boy” (originally by Kirkpatrick and Macgimsey), and then Leotha Stanley’s new “The Joy of Christmas.” The group always makes me want to start my resolutions early: To go and see their full Christmas gospel concert, this year at Door Creek Church on December 16 at 7 pm.

No better way to sign off than to quote the last line of the night, sung by well over two thousand folks: “We wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!”

 

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