Review: MSO Christmas concert lives up to its past

Review: MSO Christmas concert lives up to its past

Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain has something of a challenge at the holiday season.

For 21 years he has been host of a Christmas spectacular that brings together the orchestra, Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs, guest soloists and, for the past nine years, the Mount Zion Gospel Choir.

The challenge comes in making each season’s program a bit more memorable than those that went before. The musical groups rose to the occasion again this weekend.

However, what may be most memorable this year isn’t the music. What’s most memorable this year is soprano Alyson Cambridge, who wore five separate and spectacular gowns during the more than two-hour performance.

She wore a blue gown when she sang “O Holy Night,” a green gown when she sang Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” a red gown when she sang “I Saw Three Ships,” a white gown when she sang “Silver Bells” and a truly spectacular gold gown when she joined the Gospel Choir to sing “Let There be Peace on Earth.”

For the record, Cambridge, who has a substantial operatic career, including lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, sings well, too.

As do the choruses. As does the Mount Zion Gospel Choir. As does the featured tenor, Harold Meers, who also sings lead roles at the Met.

The interesting thing about both soloists, however, is that they sounded better when they sang alongside the choirs.

The way the Overture Center stage is arranged, the soloists normally sing from the front of the stage. Behind them is the orchestra. Behind the orchestra are the youth choirs and behind them the adult chorus. You want the soloists up front so you can see them, especially if the soprano keeps changing her gown.

But when Meers moved to the youth chorus to sing Franz Schubert’s “Mille cherubini in coro (A Choir of a Thousand Cherubs)” and when Cambridge sang with the Gospel Choir, their voices blended with and were enhanced by those around them.

Other highlights of the program include a new gospel song, “The Spirit of Christmas is Love,” composed by Leotha Stanley and Tamera Stanley, conductors of the choir.

And John DeMain’s Santa hat.

The Christmas concert ends with a singalong and it is traditional for the musicians to don Santa hats, or reindeer antlers or a Menorah hat. DeMain’s tends to be longer than the others and his hat this year reached almost to the floor. It looked like something out of a Dr. Suess book.

So, it was a good evening. It will be interesting to see what DeMain does next year to top it.