Wineke: MSO Christmas Concert is best ever

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Madison Symphony Orchestra

MADISON, Wis. — I realize this is a subjective judgment, but that judgment is that this year’s Madison Symphony Orchestra Christmas concerts are the best the MSO has ever offered.

I haven’t attended every one in the organization’s 97-year history, but I’ve been in the audience for each one that John DeMain has conducted in his 29-year tenure as music director – and a few before that.

This year is the best. I think that may be because it seems the most joyful.

Covid may not be over, but we’re no longer living in terror. The Overture Center no longer checks our vaccination status at the door. Masks are optional. As is the custom in Madison, dress varied from elegant green capes to denim short-shorts. Everyone just seems to be having a good time.

It’s not that everything was perfect at Friday night’s opening performance.

DeMain introduced Mezzo-Soprano Adriana Zabala one song before she was actually due on stage.

And during the Christmas singalong that traditionally ends the Christmas concert, a good part of the audience sang the fourth verse of “Joy to the World” rather than the second verse (“He rules the world with truth and grace” rather than “Joy to the Earth, the Savior reigns”). Actually, I’m pretty sure Zabala did that, too, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

It’s not that everything was perfect; it’s that everything worked.

Zabala is an incredible singer who was able to transform from an opera diva in “Gesu Bambino” to a Broadway star in “My Favorite Things.”

Nathaniel Stampli, baritone, actually is a Broadway star and when he sang “How Great Thou Art” it quickly became evident that the familiar hymn ought to be sung at every Christmas concert.

Leotha Stanley and his Mount Zion Gospel Choir are making their 17th appearance with the MSO Christmas concert and the choir sang two of his compositions, “The Spirit of Christmas is Love” and “Christmas Bells: The Message they Ring.”

Add in the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and an instrumental piece, Bach’s “Adagio for Oboe and Violin” with violinist and concertmaster Zuzanne Beia and oboist Izumi Amemiya and you’ve got just a great concert.