A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 7, 2013
08:15 AM
Classically Speaking

DeMain and Madison Symphony Throw Another “Spectacular” Christmas Party

DeMain and Madison Symphony Throw Another “Spectacular” Christmas Party

Courtesy: Madison Symphony

Soprano Melody Moore

If Madison Magazine ever offers the category of “best gift-giver” in their annual “Best of Madison” issue, John DeMain is the odds-on favorite to win. Experiencing his "A Christmas Spectacular" each year with the Madison Symphony almost makes one wish to be adopted into his clan, as the man gives the most wonderful gifts year after year.

Of course, DeMain makes it clear that the audience, and by extension the city, is part of his family. He emphasized that with the opening of this year’s trilogy of festive concerts on Friday night in Overture Hall, by announcing that he considered this year’s version to be “A Madison Christmas.”

This is largely due to the traditional guests invited in every year: the Madison Youth Choirs, and of course the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. But this year even the guest soloists had a local connection: Principal cellist Karl Lavine was given a solo position, and just five weeks ago on the same stage, soprano Melody Moore brought a compelling Tosca to life in the title role, and bass Nathan Stark will appear in February in Madison Opera’s production of The Daughter of the Regiment.

It is as tempting as it would be frustrating to run down the entire “gift list” of musical offerings, so apologies in advance to any in attendance who are shocked in the omission of a favorite moment of theirs—and a reminder to any who make the best kind of “impulse buy” and get downtown Saturday night (8 p.m.) or Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m.) that you’re in for even a greater treat than this space allows to describe.

The vocal soloists are always of great interest, more so than ever this year due to Ms. Moore’s aforementioned visit last month. Perhaps the single greatest highlight of the night was an arrangement for her with orchestra of Morton Lauridsen’s “O magnum myterium,” a 1994 work for chorus. I was blessed to witness that world premiere—and now consider it a double blessing to experience the gentle and fervent version Moore brought, lined with celestial expression.

Mr. Stark’s solo turns came in a just-sweet-enough rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” (As always, J. Michael Allsen’s program notes are their own treasure, a gift we receive eight times a year; here he relates how the original lyrics were so dark that Judy Garland insisted on a change when the song was included in the film Meet Me in St. Louis. Allsen’s notes are always free and online for the curious…).

Stark was joined halfway through a slyly campy “Winter Wonderland” by a playful Moore (for the carol sing-along at the close, she skipped the Santa cap for reindeer antlers).

Karl Lavine’s spotlight appearance was also highly anticipated, as the “Ave Maria” for cello and orchestra by Max Bruch comes from the same pen that composed the profound Kol Nidrei. Bruch had a profound understanding of not only the rich timbre of the cello, but its uncanny ability to capture a plaintive vocal quality, and Lavine delivered a poignant reading. The piece derives from a cantata, The Fiery Cross, and of course the “Ave” is sung in the original.

DeMain always does a superb job of utilizing the various ages of the Madison Youth Choirs (three distinct groups from elementary through middle and high school ages). The youngest group, (the Gioia choir), put beautiful wrapping on an underwhelming gift, making “Star of Bethlehem” (John Williams’ number for the film Home Alone) more substantial, following a charming “One December Bright and Clear.” But a great stretch came in the second half when they were joined by the older Ragazzi group with Moore singing from the choir (instead of front of the stage) in Michael W. Smith’s “All is Well.”

The Cantabile and Ragazzi groups also united with a truly fresh (and ultimately funny) arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The stalwart Madison Symphony Choir stood out in a rare hearing of two movements of a preciously precocious work from the thirteen year-old Mendelssohn, Magnificat.

But what would the night be without Leotha Stanley and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir? The only regret each year is that we only get three numbers from this thrilling ensemble, whose faith is palpable in every phrase they pour forth. And now it’s like we just found one last present tucked under the Christmas tree: DeMain announced that the group will give a full concert on December 21 at High Point Church at 6 p.m. For this weekend we have to content ourselves with Doc Bagby’s “Jesus, Oh What a Lovely Child,” a refreshing arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and a reprise of last year’s new Stanley composition, “Christmas Greeting.” All that remained was the donning of the Santa caps, and the carol sing-along that always manages to make the walk back to the car feel almost warm.

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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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