Madison Symphony Christmas never a ‘Ho-Ho-Hum’ affair

Madison Symphony Christmas 2015 gallery

Do not adjust your Web browser: This is not a food blog, but really is a review of Friday night’s Madison Symphony Christmas. If you’re salivating a little by the end of this post, chalk it up to music director John DeMain’s always-a-hit recipe for his ensemble’s December concert.

I’ve partaken of the last six of these events, and in digesting it some more the morning after, I can’t help but compare the “Madison Symphony Christmas” to the culinary feasts we experience at this time of year: delectable tidbits that only fit the fare for this season, a couple of meaty entrees, a couple of surprises, and yes, sometimes a little too much sugar. But since when are empty calories not allowed during the holidays?

But it cannot be overlooked that DeMain has always insisted that this is a Christmas concert, and he also makes sure that the mysterious message of Christmas is made abundantly clear through the repertoire brought to the table.
And it is a table populated with additional musical friends that are happily a glorious part of Madison’s musical family: the Madison Symphony Chorus, usually a returning vocalist who has gone on to serious operatic heights, the Madison Youth Choirs, and for the 11th year, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir to fill the final set of the night to overflowing.

DeMain wasted no time in getting nearly everyone involved; the Ragazzi and Cantabile (the older singers of the Madison Youth Choirs) processed down the Overture Hall aisles, and were later joined by the Madison Symphony Choir, mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, and bass-baritone David Govertsen in John Rutter’s sumptuous arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Govertsen shortly returned for a number from J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” delivered with both tenderness and warmth.

Another tradition of the MSO Christmas concerts is to have an instrumental work that features an orchestra member; this year principal flutist Stephanie Jutt was so honored in three movements of Bach’s “Suite No. 2,” famous for its flute part.

The choice was appropriate on two counts: While Jutt gets her share of bows from the middle of the MSO’s stellar woodwind section, it was good to have her in the spotlight. And what better choice of composer for a Christmas concert than Bach, who inscribed all his manuscripts, sacred and secular, with “S.D.G.”–to the Glory of God alone.

The lighter fare on the first half came from Con Gioa, the young girls’ ensemble of the Madison Youth Choirs. They delighted us in Rutter’s “Donkey Carol” and Chilcott’s “Mid-Winter,” while Cantabile and Ragazzi teamed with the adult MSO chorus for Bass’ breezy arrangement of familiar “bell” carols titled “Christmas Ornaments.”

The savory treats of the pre-intermission fare was led by Vaughan Williams’ chill-inducing Magnificat. The English master had a way of finding startling harmonies to evoke sacred mysteries, in this case, the Annunciation to Mary that she will bear the Son of God. DeMain took time to explain that the women of the chorus represented the angel, and the flute solo was the Holy Spirit. As always, the MSO program book provided the text. Fons was the awestruck Mary, and the music is the kind that sticks in your ears and memory for a long time afterward.

The artistic growth of the MSO Chorus must be credited largely to their longtime director (and MSO assistant conductor) Beverly Taylor. To acknowledge her 20th year in the position, she took the podium for a stirring reading of the closing section of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. No MSO Christmas is complete without the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, but it was preceded this year by a substantial treat: Govertsen was joined front and center by principal trumpeter John Aley in “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Aley practically stole the scene in executing Handel’s virtuosic instrumental writing with such ease and grace.

The second half is almost like one big dessert buffet, our young operatic stars having some fun (but not altogether comfortable) in some Christmas pops tunes.

But this is where one waits for Leotha and Tamara Stanley to roll out their spine-tingling Mt. Zion Gospel Choir. Leotha’s arrangements are simply superb, this year focused a bit more on the secular with an opening “This Christmas” and closing with a fabulous “Winter Wonderland.” But it was the central “Amen,” originally by Jester Hairston, that brought us back to the true salvation message of the season: this is not about the stable, the Wise Men, the shepherds, et al., but a flat-out statement that God became man, solely to restore a right relationship with Him. When the number moved into the famous “Amen” chorus, most of the hall’s sold-out audience members were clapping and swaying with the performers.

All that was left was the sweetness of the audience sing-along, but DeMain had one last comment. I hesitate to use quotation marks, but this paraphrase is pretty close: DeMain said he would be remiss not to mention that of course we are going through some tough times in our world, but he wanted listeners to know that the performers were singing the songs, those that cry out for peace on Earth to all people of good will, more fervently than ever, and raise the roof.

Consider it raised. I’ll be chewing on the memories of that night all season long. The performances are repeated Saturday night at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.