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Do You Hear What I Hear? Holiday Music Concerts

November 21, 2012

Caroling fanatics, on your ready: On a trip to the supermarket the other day, I saw a group of early birds singing seasonal songs — Thanksgiving songs, so I silently gave thanks that they were saving “O Holy Night” for after their recovery from a feast and tryptophan-induced coma.

Still, if it’s possible to shop for holiday gifts in early September, then it’s possible to plan now for your artistic release from the hordes of shoppers, revelers, and traffic snarls that make December enlivening, but also a strain on the system. Here is a mix of suggestions, from the frothy fare of “pops” concerts to the meditative, to the standard holiday traditions. Many of these concerts aren’t even very expensive, so you can hear live music without even resorting to the old “family members get our Shutterfly calendar” routine.

Messiah and Nutcracker

ABS MessiahHandel’s Messiah is one of those durable traditions that are the music industry’s equivalent of “Black Friday.” In the Bay Area, if this is part of your holiday to-do list, then here are five words for you: American Bach Soloists, Grace Cathedral.

You can choose from lots of fine Messiah performances, but you have to ask yourself where you’re most likely to have the entire experience. Combine the incredibly appropriate atmosphere of Grace Cathedral, atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill, with Jeffrey Thomas’ crack orchestra and chorus forces (plus four redoubtable soloists), and you have your winner. Of course, it is expensive, but seats still go quickly, so waiting will mean wanting in this case. There’s currently a 5 percent discount for online orders. American Bach Soloists: Handel's Messiah.

Other possibilities on the Handel front: the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (with many of the same personnel as the ABS performance), conducted by the famed founder of Bach Collegium Japan, Maasaki Suzuki, and, of course, the San Francisco Symphony performance, done in the graahnd style with Ragnar Bohlin conducting: S.F. Symphony: Handel's Messiah.

The NutcrackerWhen the San Francisco Ballet rolls out its yearly Nutcracker production, you may think there’s simply no competition. Well, there is competition, though not in “wow” factor. The sets and costumes of the S.F. Ballet version might pop your eyes out of their sockets, and of course the dancing won’t be lame. That’s why SFB has scheduled 32 performances of the thing — many of them are going to sell out. S.F. Ballet: The Nutcracker.

The preferred alternative version or, using Crate and Barrel–speak, the “modern traditional” version of Nutcracker is, without question, Mark Morris’ Hard Nut, back for its triennial appearance at Cal Performances in Berkeley. Funny and irreverent, surely, yet it’s also a tremendous example of direct, emotional, musical storytelling. Morris conveys a much more involved (and involving) version of the story, following E.T.A. Hoffmann’s source story. Morris avoids cliché and opens up surprising new possibilities in the story you think you know. Mark Morris Dance Group: The Hard Nut.

Carols Sung in Tune

PaslliteI don’t want to ruin anyone’s holiday get-together, because at this time of year all people with intact vocal cords should be raising their voice in song. On the other hand, there are a few Christmas songs (OK, all of them) and even a few Hanukkah songs that are hard-used around this time — Muzak arrangements, famous but overplayed recordings (Bing Crosby’s legacy is still with us), and all the rest. For those out there who want to rediscover the pure beauty of some of these standard tunes, here are some suggestions:

San Francisco Bach Choir, Psallite!:

This is “that one,” the Christmas concert with candles and a processional through a darkened church. It’s beautiful, free of gleeful, tacky rearrangements and medleys, and there’s some meat to it, as well — sacred music by 17th-century composers Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, and other greats. And, through Nov. 23, you can enter to free tickets in an SFCV contest to Psallite, a Candlelight Christmas.

A Chanticleer Christmas:

A Chanticleer ChristmasOne of the more celebrated professional choirs in the country resides right here in the Bay Area, and its holiday concert features spectacularly sung, beautifully arranged carols and is a perennial favorite. The group tours the Bay Area, so it’s easy to find a concert near you, but if you happen to live around Santa Clara or Carmel, hearing Chanticleer sing in the Missions is an extra-special treat. (Failing that, try St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Parker Street in San Francisco, on Dec. 15 — a beautiful venue.) A Chanticleer Christmas.

Kitka, “Wintersongs”:

There’s more than one holiday tradition out there, and Kitka, the outstanding women’s vocal group specializing in Eastern European music. is a reminder of that. Its “Wintersongs” consists of a collection of Eastern European music — folk carols, Hanukkah songs, and Eastern Orthodox liturgical chant. If you have a Slavic bone in your body, or were graced by great-grandparents from “the old country,” you’ll be drawn to this powerhouse concert, one of the most popular under-the-radar concerts of the season. The show is performed seven times in the Bay Area and beyond. Kitka Presents Wintersongs.

The “Family-Friendly” Concert

Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, “Carols in the California”

Personally, if I’m going to hear a holiday concert, I want Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols to be on the program. Thank you, Elena Sharkova, for understanding my need. And for training a chorus that will do justice to this marvelous work. Also on the program is a fine work by an underrated local composer, Conrad Susa, who gets some well-deserved remuneration every year when a local choral group remembers to program his magical Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest. The fun begins in the second half, with a traditional carol sing-along. In the South Bay, this is the event of the season. Symphony Silicon Valley: Carols in the California.

ODC Dance, “The Velveteen Rabbit”:

The Velveteen RabbitThis is a wonderful story, told perfectly in this dance version. See Mark MacNamara’s item in last week’s SFCV Kids Around the Bay column: ODC: The Velveteen Rabbit.

Amahl and the Night Visitors:

Gian Carlo Menotti’s popular and poignant children’s opera is getting produced this year by Livermore Valley Opera on Dec. 8 at the First Presbyterian Church of Livermore. The last couple of LVO main stage productions have received fairly positive reviews in SFCV. If you’re within range, bring the kids: to Amahl at Livermore Valley Opera. If you’re not within range, you could try the Ina Chalis Opera Ensemble version, once again playing at the Community Music Center in San Francisco on the same weekend. Ina Chalis: Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Oakland East Bay Symphony, “Let Us Break Bread Together”:

OEBSMusic Director Michael Morgan’s annual, joyful tribute to Bay Area diversity includes the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the klezmer band called Kugelplex, the Piedmont Choirs, and more in a mashup of classical works, holiday songs, gospel music, and, of course, a carols sing-along. OEBS: Let Us Break Bread Together.

San Francisco Symphony, “Deck the Hall”:

The Symphony does it up nattily, with its customary thoroughness: Davies Hall is bedecked with greenery and lights; performers from Beach Blanket Babylon, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, the S.F. Jazz High School All-Stars, the San Francisco Ballet School, and Dance Through Time, plus the Symphony itself perform holiday classics; there’s a postconcert party with arts and crafts, entertainment, and refreshments. And, if you sit in the second tier, you get to take your drink to your seat, and not once will anybody mention SpongeBob Squarepants. If you need a break, this is it.

San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, “Peter and the Wolf”:

Peter and the WolfThe SFS Youth Orchestra is a fairly elite group whose holiday classic provides a lot of fun: This year, acclaimed actress Olympia Dukakis narrates Prokofiev’s marvelous, Fantasia-inspired version of a Russian folktale, and the orchestra fills up the rest of the hour with a mix of light holiday classics and songs. Tickets are half-price for kids under 17, making this a great intro to the orchestra and an easy holiday “extra.”

Mariachi Sol de Mexico de José Hernàndez at Davies Hall

The S.F. Symphony invites this top-echelon mariachi group every year, which fills the stage with no help from the Symphony. Sleigh bells may not be necessary, but the celebration of Mexico’s Christmas traditions makes for a refreshing break from the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” drone that inundates us all month long.

For the Non-Caroling Music Lover

I think my mother has had enough of Christmas carols. She’s lived a long life so far (with many years to come), and one day she just got fed up with the month-long carol extravaganza. I know there are other people in her boat, because of my father, who has always tried (and failed) to avoid carols. If you’re one of this long-suffering group, fear not. Many holiday concerts take the opportunity to explore unusual repertoire. Here are a few options on that front.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, “A Bach Christmas”: 

A Bach ChristmasWhile Messiah gets all the airtime, J.S. Bach’s Magnificat and his advent cantatas are right up there in splendiferousness with Handel’s oratorio. So, if you’re looking for alternatives, one option is going for Masaaki Suzuki conducting the PBO in just that repertory. And, for good measure, they’ll throw in the grand Orchestral Suite in D. PBO: A Bach Christmas.

Volti, “The Not-the-Messiah Concert”:

One of the best choral groups in the Bay Area sings music of our time, about love and spirituality. The concert kicks off with a new commission of five love songs, Canconiero amoroso by Armando Bayolo. Yes, they’re still writing beautiful melodies, but not exactly like the old classics. Volti: The Not Messiah December Concert.

California Bach Society, “Christmas in Antwerp and Amsterdam”:

Sacred polyphony of the great 16th and 17th centuries — beginning with a motet by Josquin, the rock star of the early Renaissance, and ending with motets by Sweelinck and carols by 17th-century Flemish composers — is exactly the way to banish the insipid tunes that will assault you every time you enter a shop until January. Take a big heaping draught of this music, offered by the fine California Bach Society, and it will sustain you with its elevated, dignified beauty. Cal Bach: Christmas in Antwerp and Amsterdam.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.