‘Madison Symphony Christmas’ Full of Large Gifts

‘Madison Symphony Christmas’ Full of Large Gifts

ot long into Friday night’s performance of this weekend’s “Madison Symphony Christmas,” I was reminded how much it is like the best Christmases in personal memory: the fellowship with dear friends that hadn’t been seen in about a year, the welcome familiarity of cherished traditions—and as always, those little unlooked for surprises under this musical “tree.”

Aside from the Madison Symphony and Chorus of course, the returning friends consisted of the Madison Youth Choirs, organist Samuel Hutchison and Leotha Stanley and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir. The traditions included the first-half finale of the “Hallelujah Chorus” and the end of concert audience sing-along.

And it’s not that guest vocalists are a surprise—but this year’s attendees, mezzo-soprano Emily Fons and tenor David Portillo—displayed gifts of great value indeed.

John DeMain has also made a tradition of stuffing his program stocking full of selections that are not obvious choices for a Christmas package, but add special luster and depth nonetheless. Such a choice was the first solo vehicle for Fons, the “Laudaumus te” from Mozart’s Mass in C minor.

Fons immediately unwrapped the vocal gifts that have put her on a firm track to the world’s major opera houses: a coloratura range and flexibility that were as silky smooth and accurate as they come. The vocal lines of this work should prove somewhat daunting to the average performer, but Fons reeled off one after another with the same kind of innocent joy that Mozart must have felt as he penned them.

Later Fons’ voice was expressively suave in “Gesu Bambino,” and she gave evidence that she can “crossover” in style with “Reindeer Rock.”

Portillo’s big moments came in the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” (a gorgeous arrangement that featured solo piano and concertmaster-for-a weekend Suzanne Beia, before the full orchestra and Portillo took over), and that most operatic of great Christmas tunes, Adam’s “O Holy Night.” One often hears the second verse in the original French, but the Texas native Portillo gave us a Spanish version. With La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera already on his resume, Portillo should be delighting international audiences in a wide repertoire for years to come.

The choruses, of all ages, were full of pleasures, including combined forces for two movements from Schubert’s Mass No. 5. The “big kids” tossed off “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” from “Messiah,” and a powerful brass/organ/chorus work, “Make a Joyful Noise” by Edward Gregson. The Youth Choirs (Cantabile and Ragazzi by name; Mike Ross is their longtime director), brought youthful energy to the aforementioned “Bambino” and “Good King Wenceslas,” as well as the Darby/Simeone “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Hutchison was rarely in the solo spotlight, but time and again one was reminded how compelling an element a great organ is when liberally mixed with symphony orchestra. And yes, one listener jotted down another early New Year Resolution: get to one of the Overture Hall organ events, and soon…

But as much as one enjoys all that comes before, it almost seems that the time left for the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir is too short. With Leotha Stanley’s own “A Christmas Greeting,” the sold-out house raised its energy yet another notch, and the audience cheered as though they had come just for this. By the time Stanley’s arrangements of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “I Wanna Know What Love Is” had come and gone, the audience was completely ready to join in for the sing-along.

And when we had wished each other a Merry Christmas in music, I felt like the little kid who surveys the happy bedlam of torn off ribbons and wrapping paper…looking for just one more present to open. It goes too fast, at any age.

Photo: John DeMain and the Madison Symphony.