At Madison Symphony, Everyone Is Home for the Holidays

DeMain rounds up his Madison Symphony Christmas community


For 26 years now, John DeMain has put together his “Madison Symphony Christmas” like a time-honored recipe, and it satisfies his guests’ expectations even as he tweaks it with a little bit different spice each time. It’s no mean trick — after all, you have to end the first half with the “Hallelujah” Chorus, end the concert with an audience sing-along, and find a few things for the Madison Youth Choirs and your two operatic soloists to do that aren’t completely predictable.

Friday night in Overture Hall, it all came together once more to the utter delight of an enthusiastic sold-out audience (this is usually the case, but it never hurts to check at the last minute for seats!).

DeMain spoke early in the proceedings about this being a musical community, and it is an apt word, but his success in nurturing this great musical tradition of Madison’s Christmas season has added a palpable sense of family to the event. In addition to the aforementioned, we also had the Madison Symphony Chorus (a few of whom are pictured above, courtesy of Peter Rodgers), the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir and a guest soloist from within the orchestra.

The opening “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” utilized John Rutter’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangement to great effect, with all the participants (save the Mt. Zion flock, of course). The vocal soloists for the evening were tenor Mackenzie Whitney (seen here just last month in La Traviata) and soprano Michelle Johnson (also a Madison Opera alum via Cavelleria Rusticana).

The tricky part of the programming is how to find other works, not necessarily Christmas-specific, that still add to the mix of joy, reverence and of course, are a treat to hear. DeMain solved the puzzle this year with four movements from J.S Bach’s “Magnificat,” BWV 243, one of which featured Whitney and of course a robust Madison Symphony Chorus.

The orchestra’s in-house guest artist was harpist Johanna Wienholts, now in her third season. A movement of Handel’s Harp Concerto, Op. 4, No. 6 was a tuneful showcase for her admirable talents.

The other surprise items were an obscure Schubert song, “Mille cherubini in coro,” again featuring Whitney, and the closing chorus of Mendelssohn’s “Song of Praise” symphony (No. 2).

There was no lack of star moments for Ms. Johnson, as she tackled one of the real standards of classical Christmas, “O Holy Night” by Adam (following a tender “Ave Maria” in the famous Bach/Gounod version courtesy of Whitney). As a summation, let’s just say “O Holy Night” is yours truly’s all-time favorite Christmas selection, and Johnson’s rendition only cemented that sentiment.

The Madison Youth Choirs (this year the young girls’ chorus and the high school choir) took part in the aforementioned Schubert and had their own star turn in Rutter’s “Star Carol.” In the second half, MYC director Michael Ross led them in the humorous “Apple-Tree Wassail.”

Even the tried and true proved not be “trite and true” in scintillating arrangements of “Jingle Bells” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” But the second half builds to the most wonderful musical dessert one can ask for, Leotha and Tamara Stanley’s Mt. Zion Gospel Choir. This year we had a reprise of Leotha Stanley’s “The Joy of Christmas,” his quietly swinging arrangement of “Silent Night,” and the brand-new  “Christmas Hope.” When the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir explodes vocally on the word “joy,” it makes you want to jump.

At last the Santa stocking caps come out (along with other creative holiday headwear!), and the audience “chorus” of 2000-plus joined everyone else in the medley of great carols. Everyone, including Beverly Taylor, MSC director, enjoyed the extended and boisterous ovations. The  Madison Symphony Christmas came a week later this year, thanks to the extended run of “Hamilton”…but DeMain and his musical family always make the timing seem perfect.

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