A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Feb 3, 2014
10:23 AM
Classically Speaking

A Super Celebration (Before the Football Game)

A Super Celebration (Before the Football Game)

PHOTO BY GREG ANDERSON

Madison Symphony Chorus in Overture Hall

Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial holiday for most Americans and, like most of our holidays, food is often the star. But the best appetizer for this year’s big game was tucked away upstairs at the Overture Center.

Anyone who has attended the Madison Symphony's Christmas concerts know full well that part of what makes those programs special are the contributions of the 160-member, volunteer Madison Symphony Chorus. John DeMain always finds a way to get them onstage in the spring as well, but rarely do we have the chance to enjoy them sans orchestra.

We finally had that wonderful opportunity, and an overflow audience in Promenade Hall was treated to a survey of music that began in Colonial times and ran the gamut to spirituals, folk song arrangements, and several wonderful twentieth century works. With a seating capacity of about two hundred, the venue had sold out several days before, with a couple dozen seats added at the last minute.

Like nearly all of our principal local directors, Beverly Taylor is not taken for granted, and yet—certainly based on Sunday’s offering—somehow underappreciated. Her resume sparkles, and the fact that Madison has been blessed by her gifts since 1995 at the UW–Madison as well as the MSO Chorus is to be celebrated.

Which is exactly what the chorus and Taylor did on Sunday: from the opening “Magnificat” of Charles Pachelbel (not the Pachelbel of the ubiquitous “Canon in D,” but his cousin!), to the “Akkdamut milin” of contemporary Joshua Jacobson, the chorus displayed versatility and beauty of tone. The latter work is a Hebrew setting of the Ten Commandments, and the composer worked in fabulous faux echo effects of rippling harmonies to mimic the acoustic of a temple. Lukas Foss used a similar technique in “Behold, I Build an House,” an extensive picture of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, as portrayed in 1 Kings from the Old Testament. In each case, Taylor’s comments to the audience were witty and insightful and (hints of last week’s “Beyond the Score”) she used the chorus, and pianist Daniel Lyons, to illustrate moments to listen for.

Three works by Randall Thompson, including the cherished “Alleluia,” were lovingly realized, with the men alone painting a bucolic picture in “The Pasture.” Taylor’s own “If I Can Let You Go” was an homage to Thompson, and Wilberg’s arrangement of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was a welcome reprise from the Christmas concerts.

The latter portion of the intermission-less program (a very satisfying seventy-five minutes) lightened considerably, with “Shenandoah,” and the spirituals “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal,” “Sometimes I feel like a mournin’ dove” and “The Battle of Jericho.” Taylor announced that Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was a built-in encore, and aside from its seasonal aptness, it was just plain fun.

While some of the program was unaccompanied, Lyons's contributions were exemplary, and despite the feeling of a smallish hall, the acoustics worked well. If anything, it allowed the group to sing extra soft when called for, while still providing huge climaxes without strain. One hopes that this type of program is offered again—once a year would not be too much!—and if the Playhouse in the lower level is not the optimal site acoustically, it would be great to give the Capitol Theater a shot. After all, it’s beginning to seem that Madison audiences are flocking to concerts in increasing numbers.

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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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