Wineke: Old friends star in MSO Christmas

Wineke: Old friends star in MSO Christmas

Attending the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s annual Christmas spectacular is very much like enjoying a party with old friends.

Some of the performers are old friends, of course. The orchestra, Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs and Mount Zion Gospel Choir all consist of local musicians and singers – several hundred of them, in fact – who are as likely to be neighbors as strangers.

Conductor John DeMain is in his 26th year in Madison; Beverly Taylor, who directs the chorus, has been doing so since 1996; Michael Ross has worked with Madison Youth Choirs since 2003; and Leotha Stanley has been music director of Mount Zion for 34 years in addition to working as a Madison paramedic and in a number of education jobs.

The guest artists this year, MacKenzie Whitney and Michelle Johnson, aren’t our neighbors, but they are around often enough to be considered friends.

Whitney sang the role of Rodolpho in Madison Opera’s November performance of “LaTravita.” In 2018, he sang in the opera’s performance of “Florencia En Al Amazon,” and in 2015, he sang in the local production of “LaBoheme.”

Johnson sang in Opera in the Park last summer and also in the opera’s production of “Cavalleria Rusticana.”

Johnson, incidentally, pretty much blew Overture Hall apart Friday night as she sang “O Holy Night.” The audience gave her a standing ovation, along with cheers and whistles (not too many whistles).

In fact, the audience was so enthusiastic that it pretty much confused the following rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The audience traditionally stands for the chorus but most remained seated Friday night. Some may have been confused because DeMain told people not to sing if they didn’t know the parts.

Johnson and Whitney sang together in several traditional songs, including “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Their charisma pretty much flowed into the audience and added to the general happy ambiance of the evening.

Stanley, who for the past four years has composed a special Christmas song for the concert based on Advent themes of hope, love, joy and peace, put together a rousing song on peace and also arranged a gospel version of “Silent Night” that was not like any “Silent Night” I’ve heard before – but it worked.

Also featured this weekend is Johanna Wienholts, who has been the MSO principal harpist for the past three years. She played Handel’s “Harp Concerto.”

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