The 24th “Madison Symphony Christmas” treats us royally
As we get older and families often branch out, we often experience Christmas and holiday gatherings that are wonderful, but tinged with a little sadness that someone we love is missing. One celebration that always brings the whole gang back together is the “Madison Symphony Christmas,” wherein maestro John DeMain makes sure that the guest roster brings back everyone we have come to love over the years. (Pictured above, the maestro in his 5-foot Santa cap, all the choirs mentioned below, and several dozen very musical “elves,” all courtesy of Peter Rodgers).
DeMain has been leading a specifically Christmas concert since he came to Madison 23 years ago, and for the last thirteen of them the lineup has been happily consistent: the Madison Symphony Chorus, large segments of the Madison Youth Choirs, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, and a couple of young, exciting vocal soloists. We also get the majestic Klais organ, with its new curator, Greg Zelek. The repertoire varies somewhat (we always get that first-half closer of “Hallelujah Chorus” and the final audience sing-along of carols), but the package from start to finish is anticipated as greedily as thoughts of the holiday feast most of us enjoy.
Sold-out Overture Halls have also been the norm, and Friday night was no exception; perhaps the opposite of nostalgia is an over-eagerness to experience again a favorite event, but I can’t shake the feeling that last night’s concert was the best yet of the eight MSO Christmases I’ve heard.
Certainly the two soloists helped elevate the night to a memorable status that should last well into the New Year, particularly in the case of soprano Emily Pogorelc. A winsome 21-year old originally from Milwaukee, she and DeMain first crossed paths two summers ago at the Glimmerglass Festival, courtesy of Sweeney Todd. Within a month she will graduate from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and shortly afterward begin a stint with the young artists program at the Chicago Lyric Opera. In the course of the evening, Pogorelc demonstrated ease in every style, all of it illuminated by a voice pure and unforced. Her initial solo appearance was in the “Laudaumus te” from Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. After intermission she gave a spot-on uproarious traversal of “The Twelve Days After Christmas,” with the diction so precise and facial expressions and body language so perfect that the crowd could hardly stop laughing.
Pogorelc was also a winning partner with the other soloist, tenor Eric Barry. The Spanish-American told of the Christmas tradition down in Sundown, Texas as including cornbread stuffing…and patting his ample midsection said “You can see how good it is!” Fortunately his voice his large as well, heard to best effect in the “Gratias agimus tibi” from Puccini’s early Messa di Gloria (a nice piece of programming; the work is a minor gem). Barry’s own pop solo was a pleasantly relaxed “The Christmas Song” (yes, that’s the roasting chestnuts one). He is already enjoying a fine career, and there are a number of roles we would love to hear him bring to life.
Along the way we were given a most unusually wrapped gift, the bassoon artistry of MSO principal bassoonist, Cynthia Cameron-Fix. DeMain introduced her and the work by saying that, over the years, audience members have told him that their child started an instrument because of what they heard at an MSO concert. And since there are so many more youngsters at the MSO Christmas concerts, he decided to feature an orchestra member as a soloist. This year it was Cameron-Fix, and we heard a real rarity, the delightful Rondo Ungarese by Weber. You’re not likely to find that in your stocking (or a bassoon, either!). We hope Cameron-Fix gave the gift of inspiration to some future bassoonists in last night’s audience.
The MSO Chorus, prepared beautifully as always by Beverly Taylor, had their early workout in the “Gloria” and “Et in terra pax” sections of Bach’s mighty Mass in B Minor. The Madison Youth Choirs were represented by Con Gioia (the younger ladies group, who gave us a sweet “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” by John Rutter, and the Regney/Baker version of “Do You Hear What I Hear), and the high school groups Cantabile and Ragazzi. Director Michael Ross and his program might still rank among the more underappreciated artistic entities in this lively musical metropolis. They joined the MSO Chorus for two wonderful numbers, a bracing exposition of three sections of Vaughan Williams “Hodie,” and four of the “Seven Joys of Christmas” by Kirke Mechem (another unexpected gift we can thank DeMain for…he knows we like musical surprises as a side dish to our meat and potatoes).
And then of course we had at the close three roof-rattling, everyone-clapping numbers courtesy of the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir of Tamara and Leotha Stanley. Actually, the middle number, “Christmas Peace,” was beautifully restrained and structured, and was being premiered at this concert. The opener was Leotha Stanley’s arrangement of John P. McKee’s “Celebrate,” and the closer was “A Christmas Greeting,” created by both Stanleys. They and their electric group are the gift that keeps on giving: you can hear them in a concert all to themselves on December 15 at 7 pm at Door Creek Church.
All that remained was the sing-along, and judging by the final joyous ovations (which as usual had built larger and larger all night), about 2200 folks felt energized enough to get through the crazy part of this season—and along the way spread a little of the joy they had just been given.
So here’s a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (and Chanukah and Kwanzaa) to the whole MSO family and friends…we’ll see you back in Overture Hall early next year.