The Madison Symphony Orchestra Christmas concerts are always among the happiest events of the city's cultural season.
They include the symphony, the Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the Mount Zion Gospel Choir. At one point, according to conductor John DeMain, as many as 400 performers are on the Overture Concert Hall stage.
DeMain also likes to include comparatively young opera singers in the Christmas concert.
This year, soprano Emily Pogroele, a Milwaukee native who is a fourth-year student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and tenor Eric Barry, who is also an almost professional golfer, which has to make him one of the cooler performers in MSO history, headlined the weekend concerts.
But also featured was Cynthia Cameron-Fix, the orchestra's first bassoon player, who performed Carl Maria Von Weber's “Rondo Ungarese,” a really fun piece of music. I don't think I've ever seen a bassoon solo before.
DeMain explained that the Christmas concert is the MSO's one performance at which young people are admitted, and he wanted to use the occasion to introduce them to instruments and musicians. It did the same for me, too.
The concert was pretty much standard fare, with pieces from Bach, Mozart, Puccini and original works by Leotha and Tamera Stanley, the guiding lights of the Mount Zion group.
DeMain introduced Pogroele as someone who “is sure to become a big star” and it took listening to only a few bars of her first song, Mozart's “Mass in C minor,” to suggest he is, as usual, right in his assessment.
She will most likely become a big star, but not a diva. She's too Milwaukee friendly for that and Milwaukee friendly doesn't often change.
Barry is a sponsored Pro-Am golfer with Mizuno Golf. The equipment company sponsors a team of amateur golfers, of whom Barry is one.
He, incidentally, is already a big star who has sung at Carnegie Hall and has recorded seven commercial opera albums. In addition to golfing, Barry said he got his musical start in the West Texas A&M Marching band. You've really got to like this guy even before you hear him sing.
Two things that seemed a little different this year than in previous years: The orchestra always plays the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel's “Messiah” and most of the audience usually rises and sings along. It's a tradition. DeMain has been cooling on that tradition for a couple of years now. He encourages the audience to sing along “if you know the music.” Those who don't, he said, might better remain silent “and not ruin it for everyone else.” Many sang along, but not too many in the audience stood.
Also, DeMain always dons a very long red Santa hat for the last song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” He did this year, too, except this year the hanging hat reminded me of Donald Trump's signature red neckties. I may be alone in that, but the thought amused me.
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