A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 3, 2011
08:23 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Symphony’s “Christmas Spectacular”: Everyone’s Home for the Holidays

Madison Symphony’s “Christmas Spectacular”: Everyone’s Home for the Holidays

Christmas celebrations nearly always center around the reunion of extended family, and John DeMain used a similar template in assembling this year’s version of A Christmas Spectacular. Friday night, a packed Overture Hall audience delighted in the musical equivalent of stockings stuffed with endless surprises, the glow of the hearth and tree, and delicious treats at every turn.

As usual, the stage nearly overflowed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra itself, the 150 or so members of the Madison Symphony Chorus, three different groups (Con Gioia, Cantabile and Ragazzi) from the Madison Youth Choirs, Samuel Hutchison at the organ, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir—and two vocalists with local ties who are already making major careers for themselves on some of the world’s largest stages.

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen is a Sun Prairie native, so it was a real homecoming for him, while soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine is an alumna of UW–Madison. Ketelsen has already graced the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and gave ample evidence that he deserves that venue; Guarrine may be just a short time away from joining him there, and already has stops in Los Angeles, Minnesota Opera, Philadelphia and Santa Fe on her resume.

They each proved their mettle in older repertoire first, Ketelsen in an aria from Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” that did not suffer from the large orchestra treatment (yes, I know we lose the transparency of Baroque instruments, but don’t you think just once old Johann Sebastian mused to himself: “What if I had a hundred players and 150 singers?”). Ketelsen’s voice is rich and flexible, and the solo contributions of John Aley on piccolo trumpet were the perfect complement.

Guarrine offered the outer movements from Mozart’s “Exultate, jubilate,” and showed that even the sixteen-year-old Mozart, setting a Latin text to irresistibly joyful music, might already be imagining the vocal lines he would write for Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. Guarrine utilized not only a solid technique, but infused the familiar work with more personality than is often encountered.

Wonderful contrasts in repertoire and texture emerged from one selection to the next with the full Madison Symphony Chorus and the various Youth Choirs. A major treat from the former was the rarely heard “Gloria” from Dvorak’s “Mass in D Major,” while the Madison Youth Choirs were suitably angelic in Gritton’s “Welcome Yule” and suavely sweet in Rutter’s “Angel’s Carol.”

The second half revealed a most unexpected surprise: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu” from his Requiem, a duet for Guarrine and boy soprano Oliver Cordona. The lad may have looked a little nervous, but proved a solid match for Guarrine—and the ovation that followed their pristine reading resulted in an immediate encore. The second ovation nearly matched the first.

Ketelsen returned to exhibit something that can only be described as “classical crooning,” as he offered a “Christmas Song” (yes, Mel Torme’s roasting chestnuts number) that took its time and relaxed its phrases, without ever losing the velvety core of the vocalism. Guarrine rejoined him for a “White Christmas” that almost made one wish there was some snow on State Street.

A final spotlight moment came for all three of the Youth Choirs in a world premiere by Scott Gendel, “It Was My Father’s Custom.” It seemed delightfully humorous, but for all the wonderful pages of translated text and the sing-along verses in their otherwise complete program book, one wishes the MSO would have printed the text to this obviously unfamiliar work.

For all the musical presents we’d received, regular attendees at this annual rite know that it builds to an irresistible climax, with the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, with arrangements and direction from Leotha and Tamara Stanley. This year it was an incredibly fresh and propulsive “Carol of the Bells” and a deeply felt “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Their final number, incorporating all the choirs and soloists, was from a few years ago, “Sing Praises to Thee.” It always appears that they manage to raise the temperature as well as the pulse, and it seems likely there were a few “amens” among the audience along with the “bravos.” As DeMain mentioned from the stage, if you haven’t had your fill of Christmas gospel, you can hear the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir at Sun Prairie High School on December 18.

But in the meantime, the Stanleys and friends make you want to clap and sing, so as always, everyone had the chance to get their “hallelujahs” on with the closing sing-along. To paraphrase another Christmas favorite: “And to all, a great night.”

The Madison Symphony Orchestra's Christmas Spectacular runs through Sunday. For more information, visit madisonsymphony.org or overturecenter.com.

Photos of Jamie-Rose Guarrine and Kyle Ketelsen courtesy of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. 

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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