by Greg Hettmansberger
Some things (happily) never change, and one knows that the first half will close with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But for those who wanted more Handel and earlier, the wait wasn’t long. Following an explosive “Joy to the World” from orchestra and the MSO Chorus and Madison Youth Choirs, tenor Harold Meers took the stage for a dignified and powerful “Comfort Ye My People” and “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.” His strong and unforced vocalism was balanced by an energetic “And the Glory of the Lord” from the MSO Chorus.
DeMain’s new offerings included the first three movements of the aforementioned Poulenc, with fabulous bite and dazzle from the orchestra and choir, followed by splashy “Alleluia,” the final section of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. The MYC boys choirs had a cherishable moment earlier in Schubert’s “Mille Cherubini in coro” (with another wonderful contribution from Meers), and Rutter’s “Star Carol.”
The second half sticks more to the tried and true (a lovely duet arrangement of “White Christmas” for Meers and Cambridge, Meers again in Mel Torme’s timeless “Christmas Song” and the young ladies of the MYC in “The Holly and the Ivy”). But the MSO Christmas party isn’t over till the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir sings.
Leotha Stanley, along with his wife, Tamera, have their own special recipe, a magical way of transfusing the spirit of Christmas with gospel. Their set this year, which again took an already enthusiastic packed Overture Hall to a new level of response, opened with their new song, “The Spirit of Christmas is Love.” “Sing Praises to Thee” amped up the fervor, but the close was something else again. “Let There Be Peace on Earth” was created in 1955 by nearly two hundred students of all races. The Stanleys' arrangement lifted us all into a moment where a wish not just for Christmas, but for every day, seemed tangibly true for a few minutes. The entire stage of combined choirs swayed and sang, all ages, all races … and for those precious moments the fire of a dream that refuses to be crushed came to life. Never more so than in the light of recent events in our nation are such expressions needed.
Of course the concert ends with the traditional sing-along, but the lingering memory is that priceless fusion of visual harmony with aural splendor set to words of earnest dedication that had come a few minutes earlier. “Madison Symphony Christmas” is repeated on Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Go grab a stockingful of Christmas cheer—and a sizable dose of hope with it.