Tidings of Great Joy (for the 25th time)

“Madison Symphony Christmas” replicates its winning formula

 

I’ve only heard the last nine editions of the “Madison Symphony Christmas,” so I’m not sure exactly how long it took music director John DeMain to hit upon his winning formula. Last weekend was the 25th edition during his tenure, and perhaps the most impressive thing about the program is the way he manages to bring back the expected favorites while spicing up the menu with new and unexpected treats.

Of course the most lasting impression is the sense that this has long been a unique kind of family affair, at least in the larger sense of Madison’s musical community. Little is more important to DeMain than expanding the impact of his orchestra beyond the walls of Overture Hall; in the case of this concert, he brings in an expanded family to celebrate the Christmas season.

Yes, all the anticipated musical family was on hand Saturday night: the Madison Symphony itself, complete with organist Greg Zelek and pianist Daniel Lyons, the MSO Chorus, trained by Beverly Taylor, two groups from Michael Ross’s Madison Youth Choirs, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir of Leotha and Tamera Stanley, and two stellar soloists, soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez and baritone Kyle Ketelsen. The audience appeared to have occupied every seat (the three performances have had the highest single-ticket buyer rate and virtually every performance for years has been sold out), and we happily settled in for a couple of hours of musical gifts.

The Mack Wilberg arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High” involved everyone save the Mt. Zion group, and the MSO and Chorus followed with a rousing “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” from Handel’s Messiah.

The aria “Grosser Herr, O starker Konig” from J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” gave Ketelsen (the Sun Prairie native who spends chunks of his time at the Metropolitan Opera and the great houses of Europe) his first chance to shine, along with principal trumpeter John Aley, in fine form on piccolo trumpet. DeMain stayed with Bach but gave us a musical present not directly related to Christmas, the slow movement of the Concerto for Two Violins. The added treat was that the soloists were two MSO players easily overlooked: associate concertmaster Leanne League and principal second violinist, Xavier Pleindoux. The work was a lovely choice, and lovingly played.

The Madison Boychoir showed their stuff in Rutter’s “Angel’s Carol,” and Ketelsen returned as soloist with them in Yon’s exquisite “Gesu Bambino.” Ms. Lopez took her first solo turn in a meltingly beautiful “Laudate Dominum” from Mozart’s overlooked Vespers, K. 339. One last off-the-beaten path work remained, two sections of the Gloria movement of Schubert’s Mass No. 5, before the traditional first half closing, the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Messiah.

The second half turns to lighter fare, highlighted by Lopez in a Venezuelan carol, “Mi burrito sabanero,” and Ketelsen poured out a smooth helping of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The Mt. Zion Gospel Choir inevitably raises the energy level and temperature a few degrees, this year with Leotha Stanley’s new “4 is for Christmas Happiness,” and a compellingly heavy and driving arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Stanley’s arrangement of “O Holy Night” utilized all the choirs and proved to be an arresting re-imagining that still retained the pristine power of the original. (All the groups are pictured above from a previous season, courtesy of Peter Rodgers).

All that remained was the audience sing-along, many in the audience prepared to don their Santa caps along with the entire orchestra (of course, no one outdoes DeMain’s four-foot long version!). It is also possible that no one enjoys the production as much as the maestro, and when at the close he bids not just the audience but all of Madison “a Merry Christmas and a peaceful and sane New Year,” few can doubt that it is truly a message from his heart.

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