Wineke: Christmas Returns Officially With MSO Concerts

Overture Center For The Arts Daytime
Photo courtesy of Overture Center

MADISON, Wis. — Christmas really doesn’t return to the Madison arts scene until the Madison Symphony Orchestra offers its annual Christmas extravaganza.

Which means, of course, that Christmas didn’t really happen last year as we were all shut down for Covid.

But this weekend the orchestra and conductor John DeMain, along with the Madison Symphony Chorus, Mount Zion Gospel Ensemble and Madison Youth Choirs were back in force and in harmony.

Overture Hall was packed as it hasn’t been since the shutdown began. And the Christmas concert always draws an eclectic crowd including stalwart music professors who haven’t missed a concert in 50 years and young adults who make this their only Overture Center visit of the year.

The occasion actually starts before the auditorium opens its doors. The Madison Symphony Chorus leads a half-hour hymn sing in the lobby – this year each of the singers was masked.

One little girl, dressed in a white sweater and a long Santa hat, joined conductor Beverly Taylor in conducting the first carol and, then, withdrew to the sidelines but kept waving her arms in beat with the music.

Dr. Richard Shropshire, 93, was in the audience with his wife, Doris. Maj. Peter Owen, who had the distinction, I think, of being the tallest person in the audience with the brightest red and white Christmas sport jacket, was there with his wife, Melissa. Peter is also my grandson.

So, the concert was a great success even before it began.

The only thing missing was the choir of young children who normally open the concert with a candlelight procession. They are not yet all vaccinated and, thus, could not perform this year.

The concert usually figures operatic soloists.

This year, soprano Elizabeth Caballero, familiar to the Madison audience for her appearances with the Madison Opera, and tenor Jerod Esguerra, who is making his first appearances in Madison, shared the stage and pretty much thrilled the audience.

Flutist Stephanie Jutt, a member of the orchestra, took the stage to perform Jonathan Dove’s “The Magic Flute Dances.”

Organist Greg Zelek was rehearsing his role with a silent organ before the concert opened. The Overture Concert Organ is a gigantic instrument – but its keyboard sends electronic signals to the organ, so Zelek’s hands could race across the keys and his feet could dance on the pedals, but no sound emerged until he wanted it to.

During the carol sing that ends the concert, most of the audience wears Santa hats; Zelek’s was large enough to cover an elephant’s head.

And all of this just reinforces what a tremendous blessing John DeMain has been to this community for the past 27 years. He keeps bringing in young talent from around the world but keeps his eye open constantly for the musicians in Madison who deserve honored stature., the Mount Zion Gospel Ensemble, for example, who bring the audience to its feet each year.

Christmas is now officially here. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s coming in style.