by Lindsay Christians
Called the Christmas Spectacular until the Radio City Rockettes threatened to get legal about it, the renamed Madison Symphony Christmas is arguably the MSO's most popular show of the year.
Continuing through Sunday, it's technically sold out. But of course, one can always call the box office to check on returns (258-4141).
Maestro John DeMain chose soloists he knew well for this year's festivities. Tenor Harold Meers last performed with the symphony in April 2013, singing Rachmaninoff's "The Bells."
On Friday, Meers turned in a fine performance of the Gounod "Ave Maria" — arguably not a Christmas song, but beautiful nonetheless — "Comfort Ye My People" from Handel's "Messiah" and "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting ...)." His voice was bright and ringing, though some of the lower notes in "Christmas Song" escaped him.
Joining Meers in front of the orchestra was soprano Alyson Cambridge, whom DeMain worked with at the Lyric Opera in Chicago when he conducted "Porgy and Bess" (she was Clara) and "Showboat" (Julie).
Cambridge dazzled, with a rich, full vocal tone on beloved favorites like "Silver Bells," a mix of "I Saw Three Ships" and "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," and "O Holy Night."
Cambridge, a natural entertainer, also paraded a series of stunning dresses, from navy to emerald green to a V-neck, red gown in what looked like raw silk to sparkling, long-sleeved white and, finally, glittering gold.
By the time she got to the fourth dress, the audience had begun to react with surprised approval. Cambridge, who clearly knows she's a knockout, coyly shrugged.
The boys-only group within Madison Youth Choirs got the showcase spot this year (they switch years with the girls) with a lively rendition of John Rutter's "Star Carol" and the more challenging "Mille cherubini in coro," a Schubert piece. The Rutter, in particular, showed off the boys' impressive diction and focus.
A highlight, as in so many previous years, was the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, directed by Leotha and Tamera Stanley. The group brought an entirely different style and energy to the concert, a refreshing, spirited boost.
This year, the Stanleys premiered a fantastic new piece, "The Spirit of Christmas is Love," with lyrics about compassion and the addition, to the orchestra, of an electric guitar and keyboard. A strong, enthusiastic arrangement of "Sing Praises to Thee" by Christopher Lewis, punctuated with hallelujahs!, followed.
It's not all that surprising that the MSO's Christmas concerts are generally the least-subscribed of the season, with their emphasis on popular tunes. The proceedings can get a little sensational, like the surging, melodramatic end to Irving Berlin's "White Christmas."
But the Madison Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Beverly Taylor, was such a joy to hear, showcased on Francis Poulenc's joyful "Gloria" (the first three movements) and a dramatic arrangement of "Deck the Halls" by Carmen Dragon. The chorus sounded well-balanced, well-rehearsed and solid on pitches, with expressive phrasing and dynamics to spare.
"I don't know how much we in Wisconsin are longing for a white Christmas," DeMain said, recalling last winter's frigid temperatures.
Yet once again, the beloved classics programmed for A Madison Symphony Christmas proved why so many look forward to it, year after year. Come early for a carol sing, starting 45 minutes before the concert.