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The Madison Symphony Orchestra's annual Christmas Spectacular concerts have become a beloved family tradition. The concert hall is always filled to capacity in the first weekend of December for concerts that bring together an equal blend of classical repertoire and popular favorites. In the last few years, the Madison Children's Chorus and Madison Boychoir (now combined as Madison Youth Choirs under the artistic direction of Michael Ross) and the Madison Area Concert Handbells have also been part of the mix, as are soloists from the orchestra and memorable guest singers. Like the Madison Symphony Orchestra's debut CD -- last year's successful "Live from the Oscar Mayer Theatre" -- this is a compilation of highlights from live performances from the last several years. As these are live recordings, there are occasional non-musical contributions from the audience. Yet there is also that indefinable excitement that comes from performances for sold-out houses of enthusiastic listeners.
The recording showcases four of the fine vocal soloists who have appeared on our holiday programs. On the "popular" side there are memorable performances by bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen and soprano Celena Shafer. Ketelsen, who has become a favorite with Madison audiences in recent years, starts us off with a good-humored rendition of Winter Wonderland. Shafer has her solo moment in a fine arrangement of the familiar carols "I Saw Three Ships" and "Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella." On the "classical" end of the scale is tenor Robert Swensen's performance of the Ave Maria prayer, heard here in its most beloved form, as a cantabile melody by Gounod set above a Bach keyboard prelude. In a similar, but somewhat more "operatic" vein is "Panis Angelicus," a Latin communion prayer set by Franck, sung by tenor Raul Hernandez above the composer's intensely contrapuntal accompaniment.
The virtuosity of the Madison Area Concert Handbells is heard here in two performances: a witty arrangement of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" and Amundson's bright and cheerful "Joyous Noel."
The glorious voices of the Madison Symphony Chorus are featured on this disc is a series of movements from "Seven Joys of Christmas" by Kirke Mechem. Lauded as the "dean of American choral composers," Mechem wrote this work in 1964, a setting of songs from across the world that express the many shades of joy in this season. The excerpts begin with the bell-like French carol "Din don! Merrily on High" and energetic versions of the Burgundian "Patapan" and "Fum, fum, fum!" from Spain. For the final movement, Mechem adopts a popular Renaissance song form, the quodlibet -- a combination of several popular songs. He cunningly works in several familiar Christmas tunes into a setting of the English song "God Bless the Master of this House."
The Madison Youth Choirs are a customary and popular part of the Madison Symphony's December celebration. The most irrepressibly cute moment on the disc is "Star of Bethlehem," from John Williams's score to the movie "Home Alone," sung here by the choir's very youngest voices. Their "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" is a charming arrangement of the perennial favorite holiday poem by Clement Clark Moore. And, of course, they sing for us "Jingle Bells."
The orchestra also takes a few solo turns on this recording. Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Christmas Eve" was completed in 1895. Based upon Gogol's fantasy "Christmas Eve Revels," it tells a fairytale story of enchantment and features as one of its main characters the Tsaritsa Catherine II. The opera was a failure, but he later arranged an orchestral suite from "Christmas Eve" that incorporated many of the ballet episodes from the opera. The "Polonaise" heard on this CD comes from Act III, where it accompanies a swirling and festive Christmas Eve ball held at the Tsaritsa's palace.
Marc Fink, the orchestra's longtime principal oboist, is heard here in a solo moment: the sensuous Baroque "Adagio" from Marcello's "Oboe Concerto."
And finally, Bizet's 1872 incidental music for the melodrama "L'Arlésienne" ("The Woman of Arles") has long outlived the play for which it was written: a potboiler set in Provence. Bizet's well-known "Farandole" for the play was borrowed from a traditional Provençal theme, the "Marcho dei Rei" (known best to American audiences as the Christmas tune "The March of the Three Kings").
Program Notes by Michael Allsen