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Madison Symphony sings out the year with a virtual Christmas concert

Madison Symphony sings out the year with a virtual Christmas concert

Parts of this year’s virtual Madison Symphony Christmas concert, streaming now through the end of the year, look familiar.

Maestro and master of ceremonies John DeMain has put on his cozy Santa hat, just like always. A ring of bright poinsettias encircles the organ bench around Greg Zelek. While he plays, gobos (patterned lights) splash onto the sides of the stage, representing the star over Bethlehem and candles wreathed in holly.

A COVID-19 vaccine has finally arrived in the state, but it is not yet safe to convene the 91 members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — not to mention the Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs, Mt. Zion Gospel Choir and vocal soloists — on the stage at Overture Hall.

Instead, the MSO pulled together a selection of performances of holiday favorites filmed in living rooms, on the Overture stage, over Zoom and in the sanctuary of a south side Baptist church.

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For those who celebrate Christmas, it’s a heartwarming program, running just shy of an hour including the sing-along finale.  

Among my personal highlights are this year’s soloists. Emily Secor, recently a studio artist at Madison Opera in 2018-19, is a sheer delight. She sparkles on an aria from “Messiah” (“He Shall Feed His Flock”) and brings loads of charm to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Thanks to the virtual format, I can listen to her shimmery rendition of “O Holy Night” three times.


Baritone Kyle Ketelson performed an excerpt from "Messiah" and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" as part of the virtual Madison Symphony Christmas. 

Any chance to hear Kyle Ketelson, an internationally renowned baritone who happens to live nearby in Sun Prairie, is a treat. He showcases both power and lyricism on his own Handel aria, but I was unexpectedly moved by “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Michael Ross marshals his kiddos in the Madison Youth Choirs for a performance of Robert Beers’ “Peace Carol,” skillfully synced by Audio for the Arts. It’s a sweet carol, and clock the kid in the Yoda Santa hat. What an odd time to be a teen — and how good it is, now, to hear them singing again.

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Zelek, the MSO organist, displays some fancy footwork in a Handel prelude on “Joy to the World” and an arrangement of the lilting “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” carol.

The gospel choir from Mt. Zion is the only group to sing together inside in person, performing Leotha Stanley’s “Christmas Hope” in the sanctuary. Fronted by soloist David Smith Jr., the choir brings a hopeful message, buoyant energy and a little choreography from behind a handful of generously spaced stand microphones.

Mt Zion Choir.png

Soloist David Smith Jr., at right, with the members of the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir perform "Christmas Hope" as part of a virtual Madison Symphony Christmas. 

This season, the MSO had intended to celebrate the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven. (The exact date is unknown but Dec. 17 was, as the Peanuts crew calls it, “Beethoven Day.”)

Instead, the city’s largest orchestra launched a musicians’ relief fund and recently canceled all planned 2021 events from February through May. A recent story in Madison Magazine noted that the MSO is planning a series of smaller performances.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is going smaller and virtual as well with on-demand digital concerts starting Jan. 22. Madison Opera has gone from digital fall to digital winter; soprano Emily Birsan is set to perform live from the (empty) Madison Opera Center on Feb. 13.

“We could scarcely have imagined the devastation of the coronavirus in almost every aspect of our lives,” MSO executive director Rick Mackie said in a late-November season update. The MSO is currently set to resume performances in September 2021.

Meanwhile, why not sing? This virtual Madison Symphony Christmas ends with Beverly Taylor conducting the traditional medley of hymns and carols, single verses of “The First Noel,” “Silent Night,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” among others. Don we now our gay apparel until we can sing together again.

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