Greg’s gift picks for the music lover

Greg’s gift picks for the music lover

Thanks to online purchasing and quick shipping options, it’s not too late to select a very special gift (or more) for the discerning music lover on your holiday gift list. Here is a DVD that features one of our best known and loved local artists, and three CDs of carols that each offer something very distinctive.

By now, most of musical Madison is well-versed in the tale of the then-thirty-two-year old John DeMain conducting the landmark production and subsequent recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at Houston Grand Opera in 1976. Possibly overlooked is the fact that in recent years DeMain’s reputation and activities throughout North America in the realm of musical theater remain as strong as ever. The latest evidence is the DVD of San Francisco Opera’s 2014 staging of Show Boat, released a few months ago. Directed by Francesco Zambello (who has worked with DeMain since the 1980s), the quality of the performance alone would put it high on anyone’s list.

It is easy to forget that the first staging of the Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern opus in 1927 predated Porgy and Bess by eight years, and both the story line and the musical/dramatic flow were unprecedented. Zambello and DeMain were able to have access to all the original materials, and the song “Hey Feller,” which was inserted later. The result is to place young Magnolia Hawkins at the center of the story throughout—and to give us material unknown to those only familiar with the famous film version of the 1950s, and refresh all the great familiar numbers. Part of the magic is the casting: Operatic singers take the principal roles, while Broadway singers and even a TV star or two add to the artistic synergy. Morris Robinson is Joe, delivering more than just a sturdy “Ol’ Man River,” matched by Angela Renee Simpson as a powerful Queenie, made all the moreso with restored material. Heidi Stober and Michael Todd Simpson are a great vocal match as Magnolia and Gaylord, and Bill Irwin is an irresistible Cap’n Andy.

But what lifts the production to significance is DeMain’s assured and mastered navigating of the rich score, from ballad to farce to Charleston to the usually neglected “Mis’ry”—an extended dark chorus for the African-American chorus that strikes one as a premonition of Gershwin’s great “Buzzard Song” in Porgy. The EuroArts release of two discs (the second a half hour of short interviews with most of the principal singers as well as DeMain and Zambello) is available at Naxos.

The most unusual CD of carols I’ve encountered in many a Christmas season is The Wexford Carols, a collection of twelve songs likely unfamiliar to nearly everyone. Listening to this disc, primarily featuring the lead vocals and arrangements of Caitriona O’Leary, you won’t feel like you’re caroling in the square or singing in church—but you might well feel that you’re spending an hour in Ireland. Save for one original work by O’Leary, the disc consists of carols penned by the all-but-destroyed Catholic congregation of Wexford, Ireland in the latter part of the seventeenth century. In 1649 the forces under Oliver Cromwell began an attack on Wexford that eventually reduced the population from two thousand to about four hundred. Over the next half-century or so, the remnant of the Catholic Church in Ireland celebrated—and sometimes sang in code—regarding both the birth of the Savior and their dire plight. There are other vocalists as well as a small folk-like ensemble. O’Leary’s voice is all one would ask for purity, piety and simplicity, and the disc comes with a wonderfully detailed booklet and texts. Available from Heresy Records and Naxos.

A CD of mostly more familiar carols—but with plenty of surprising twists and turns—comes from Signum Records: “Christmas Carols from Village Green to Church Choir.” Andrew Gant is the founder of a twenty-two-member choral group, Vox Turturis, and his aim is to present a quasi-chronological survey of the English carol tradition that matches the telling of the Christmas story. His own annotations lead us through a fascinating journey of lost tunes, unusual circumstances and unexpected origins of everything from “Away in a Manger,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and ” The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with new treasures such as “The Fleecy Care” and “Celebrons la naissance” (yes, the tune was French, but an English clergyman put it to his own use). Vox Turturis is both a sensitive and powerful group, and is heard mostly a cappella and sometimes with a discreet organ accompaniment. The CD (nearly seventy minutes in length) is also distributed in North America by Naxos.

The final recommendation is “Light of Gold: A Cappella SF Christmas.” Cappella SF was founded by Ragnar Bohlin in 2014; the Swedish director came to the Bay Area in 2007 when he was named to direct the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The Delos disc offers a wide range of beautiful Christmas vocal works, from medieval to a world premiere by Bohlin’s compatriot, Fredrik Sexten. There is also a classical slant to the repertoire with two stunning excerpts from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. The twenty-four-member chamber choir is exquisite in its shading and control, and it is already a disc I turn to over and over again in this joyous season. As with the other selections, the CD is available at

But if you really get stuck at the last minute, get your friends and loved ones tickets to one of our local groups. Best wishes for a safe and celebratory season, and a Happy Musical New Year!