Madison SYmphony Orchestra & Chorus
Leading a full complement of players -- winds, brass and all — as well as the Madison Symphony Chorus and several other guests, maestro John DeMain allowed that they’d made “some modifications for ‘you know what’” while trying to maintain beloved traditions.
That meant all 150-some adult choristers wore matching black singer’s masks, as did the high school-aged singers in the Madison Youth Choirs. (Shaped like duck bills, singer’s masks allow performers a little more breathing room. Some boys still struggled, tugging at their faces.)
That Bach piece, “Ehre sel dir, Gott, gesungen” from the fifth part of his “Christmas Oratorio,” shone a spotlight on two oboes d’amore, or “oboes of love,” the mezzo-sopranos of the oboe family. (The oboe is the soprano, DeMain explained; the English horn, the tenor.) A Christmas church cantata, it was full of buoyant rhythms and running fugues.
It led easily into another orchestral showcase, “The Magic Flute Dances,” featuring principle flute Stephanie Jutt. Stopping and starting Mozart’s familiar themes gave Jonathan Dove’s tribute to the opera a playful feel, like a skipping record. It sounded surprisingly wintery, too — Jutt’s glissandos, or slides up the scale, recalled the kids whirling around on ice at the start of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” There were even whips in it, like in “Sleigh Ride.”
Soprano Elizabeth Caballero, glittering in a black lace high-low gown, brought reverence to Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” while tenor Jared Esguerra earned the first standing O of the night for a warm, rich rendition of “O Holy Night.”
Conductor Beverly Taylor has been leading the Madison Symphony Chorus for 25 years, and her singers’ delight in returning to John Rutter’s “Gloria” was clear in all three movements. Bright and high energy with sweeping dynamic contrasts, this piece was clearly as fun to sing as it was to listen to.
Where operatic performers sometimes put a foot wrong is on the pop-style stuff, the “Winter Wonderlands” and waltzing Sinatra. DeMain drops Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Song” on this program nearly every year, but few have sung it with as much swoon-worthy style as Esguerra. The song fit him like a tailored tux, and he wore it with the confidence of a true showman.
Also getting better at every turn is Leotha and Tamera Stanley’s Mt. Zion Gospel Ensemble, this year a core group of nine singers (including Tamera) with Leotha on keys. Tamera took the audience to church during “Yes, This is Jesus,” a Stanley original with tight harmonies and spirit to spare. And there it was, another standing ovation.
DeMain intimated that Peter Jaffe’s “Symph-Hanukkah,” an awfully entertaining orchestral medley of traditional Hanukkah tunes with klezmer flourishes, was the first time he’d programmed a piece honoring the Jewish holiday. He dedicated it to Madison Youth Choirs director Mike Ross, who appeared for bows in a menorah hat. Ross' choirs, too, were in fine form, their tone agile and clear.
In small ways, this was a different concert than in years past. I first sang the soprano part in the “Messiah” chorus when I was a teenager. On Friday, it was absolutely harder to hit those high notes in a mask, even if I’d had one designed for singers.
Yet in most ways, A Madison Symphony Christmas 2021 is the same big-hearted, big-tent musical event it’s always been. As everyone — the symphony chorus, the youth choirs, the gospel ensemble, the symphony — joined in for a Leotha Stanley original finale (“Christmas Time is Here”), I couldn’t help but grin as the women swayed in neat unison and the guys looked perilously close to knocking each other off the risers.
It made me want to echo DeMain’s parting words: Be safe, all. And Merry Christmas.