The 2019 SFCV Holiday Music Guide — A Little Fa La La for Everyone

SFCV Editors on December 3, 2019
The California Revels revisits its long history of celebrating the season in this year's show.

Even in America’s late autumn of discontent, the December holiday season has arrived on schedule and with it, a slew of holiday concerts. While we might not always feel up to the singalongs or caroling, this music also includes some of the great classics and most beautiful tunes we know. The variety on offer in this partial list is a testament to the creative spirit, something that, hopefully, still brings us together.

San Francisco Symphony

You can always count on the San Francisco Symphony for reliable holiday fare. The orchestra offers an established month-long lineup that includes classical and popular favorites, celebrity guests, and family-friendly movies accompanied by live orchestra. Here are some of the highlights:

  • It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 3–6) — Last year, it was an opera, but the SF Symphony goes back to the original black and white this season. The orchestra plays Dimitri Tiomkin’s score live for two showings of the Christmas classic.

  • Andrea Bocelli With the SF Symphony and Chorus at Chase Center (Dec. 5) — A Puccini world premiere is the big news for this concert, but a couple numbers off Bocelli’s 2009 holiday album My Christmas could easily make it on the program.

  • Holiday Soul With Brian McKnight (Dec. 10–11) — The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir joins singer-songwriter McKnight for two nights of “foot-stomping” performances, accompanied by the SF Symphony.

  • Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 13–14) — SF Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin conducts the ubiquitous Christmas classic — one of several renditions around the Bay Area this month.

  • Music for Families: Holidays Around the World (Dec. 14) — Part classic, part unconventional, the orchestra plays symphonic favorites for kids, as well as carols from around the globe. Get there early for pre-concert activities — and a free elf hat!

  • Peter and the Wolf (Dec. 15) — Daily Show correspondent Dulcé Sloan serves as narrator for the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra’s annual holiday concert.

  • Holiday Brass (Dec. 15) — An SF Symphony tradition — members of the Symphony’s brass and percussion sections play music from Gabrieli to Guaraldi.

  • ’Twas the Night — A Festival of Carols (Dec. 19–20) — Get in the Christmas Eve mood a couple of nights early with a concert of carols and singalongs, featuring the San Francisco Girls Chorus and organist Jonathan Dimmock.

For a full list of holiday events hosted by the San Francisco Symphony, check out the orchestra’s online calendar.

S.F. Symphony Brass


San Francisco Opera: Hansel and Gretel (Dec. 7) — There’s one performance left in the season of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera, which has become a holiday staple.

Early Music

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra: Judas Maccabeus (Dec. 5–8) —  Handel’s great oratorio dramatizes the same military victory that is the story of the Hanukkah celebration. Nicholas McGegan conducts the orchestra and some starry soloists — Nicholas Phan (Judas), William Berger (Simon), Robin Johannsen (Israelitish Woman), Sara Couden (Israelitish Woman). This is the home field for McGegan and the orchestra. ’Nuff said.

Vallejo Choral Society: “An ‘Early’ Christmas,” (Dec. 7–8) —  That’s “early” as in the Baroque masterpiece Midnight Mass for Christmas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The VCS, under the direction of their artistic director, and early music specialist, Derek Tam, are adding in other Baroque beauties by Sweelinck, Porpora, and Buxtehude, as well as two guys named Bach and Handel.

American Bach Soloists: Messiah (Dec. 11–13) —  There are three performances in Grace Cathedral of this masterwork, a yearly tradition from ABS and Music Director Jeffery Thomas. That means you might still have a prayer of getting tickets. There are lots of Messiah performances to choose from at this time of year. This is the one to beat.

Voices of Music: Virtuoso Arias and Concertos (Dec. 19–22) —  Brilliant countertenor Christopher Lowery, violinist Alana Youssefian, and cellist William Skeen share the soloist honors alongside a group of possibly familiar faces from the local early music scene. In the last few days before Christmas you’ll be happy to have this concert to chase away the shopping blues.


San Francisco Choral Society: Christmas Oratorio, (Dec. 6–7) —  Artistic Director Robert Geary is celebrating the Choral Society’s 30th season in typical, go-for-broke style, with a holiday offering of J.S. Bach’s thrilling cantata cycle, collectively known as the Christmas Oratorio. Also on the program, Bach’s magnificent Magnificat.

San Francisco Bach Choir: “Journeys by Candlelight —  Christmas Near and Far” (Dec. 7–8) —  We love this concert for its candlelight procession and the beautiful renditions of famous carols, but the Choir would like you to know that they can do more than that. In addition to a musical world tour, SFBC presents a new carol by Jean Ahn, “Roasted Chestnuts,” based on a Korean folksong.

Marin Symphony Chamber Chorus: Holiday Concert (Dec. 7–8) —  More carols and candlelight and a special highlight — Gerald Finzi’s rarely heard Christmas Scene — In terra pax. The chorus is joined by the Marin Girls Chorus, a string quintet, and harpist Anna Maria Mendieta.

Ragazzi Boys Chorus: “Celebrations of the Season —  Stories of Our Immigrant Heritage” (Dec. 7–8) —  The top-level choir presents music from Poland, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, China, and Africa. Anytime is a good time for the message implicit in this concert. America is a melting pot and long may that continue. Caroling and a sing-along will, of course, follow.

Chanticleer | Credit: Lisa Kohler

A Chanticleer Christmas (Dec. 10–23) —  The one Christmas concert to rule them all. This men’s chorus is one of the best and their Christmas program is a tried and true favorite, featuring music from throughout their very expansive repertory. If you haven’t caught up with this group, they’re helpfully scheduling 12 performances around the Bay Area this year.

California Bach Society: “Christmas in the Americas” (Dec. 13–15) —  Artistic Director Paul Flight’s program features music of the Mexican Baroque, a William Billings hymn, Canadian music based on French carols, new arrangements of old favorites, and a world premiere commission by N. Lincoln Hanks.

Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale: “Carols in the California” (Dec. 14) —  San Jose’s California Theater hosts the powerful SSV Chorale again, under the direction of Elena Sharkova, with special guest, soprano Lisa Vroman. Carols and holiday songs.

Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys: “A Cathedral Christmas” (Dec. 14–20) —  Grace Cathedral is a wonderful place to hear a holiday choral concert, no argument there. Lots of performances, but don’t wait to get your tickets.

San Francisco Choral Artists: “From Pole to Pole —  Christmas in the Three Americas” (Dec. 15–21) —  Another international journey through the choral literature, this one fusing South, Central, and North American traditions, plus two commissioned works, one by Timothy Kramer (“Cradle Song”) and the other by Alexis Alrich (“Pedacitos de Cielo”).

The Gryphon Carolers: Holiday Concert (Dec. 15) — The Gryphon Carolers formed in 1975, when composer/guitarist Ed Johnson and singer-songwriter Carol McComb recruited students from their classes at Palo Alto’s Gryphon Stringed Instruments. In early years, the Carolers serenaded passers-by on the streets of Palo Alto. Today, the Gryphon Carolers is a 30-voice ensemble with guitar, piano, mandolin, fiddle, saxophone, bassoon, bass, percussion, and more.

Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco: Carols by Candlelight (Dec. 15) —  Performing for the first time on the Old First Concerts series, acclaimed conductor Susan McMane’s group will perform music by Hildegard von Bingen, Jacob Handl, Arvo Pärt, Maurice Duruflé, Abbie Betinis and others.

San Francisco Girls Chorus: “A Ceremony of Carols” (Dec. 16) —  As Valerie Saint-Agathe details in SFCV’s artist spotlight, there’s a ton going on in this concert, as the chorus collaborates with Clerestory, The Living Earth Show, and harpist Bridget Kibbey.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus in Davies Symphony Hall

Holiday Pops

Marin Symphony: Holiday Concerts (Dec. 7, 8, and 17) — Music Director Alasdair Neale conducts the annual holiday pops concert on Dec. 17, but for a more intimate offering, turn to two choral programs, Dec. 7 and 8, featuring the Marin Symphony Chamber Chorus.

Oakland Symphony: Music of Aretha Franklin – Let Us Break Bread Together (Dec. 15) — Bay Area vocalist Tiffany Austin headlines this community event, stepping into the great diva’s shoes. As always, Michael Morgan and orchestra have crafted an “inspired, multifarious, musical bash” that’s also a venue for wide-ranging inclusiveness. SFCV’s only complaint, issued annually: There’s only one performance!

Santa Rosa Symphony: Holly Jolly Pops (Dec. 15) — Holiday pep abounds with this Santa Rosa Christmas tradition. Carols of all kinds — some classic, some styled ala Ella Fitzgerald — fill out the program. Clairdee and Ned Rifken are featured vocalists this year, and Michael Berkowitz conducts.

The March of the Nutcrackers and More

ODC/Dance: The Velveteen Rabbit (Dec. 5–8) — For something traditional that isn’t a Nutcracker, try ODC/Dance’s 33rd season of this production at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. They promise it will be “brimming with wit, festive costumes, madcap characters, and the perfect amount of holiday cheer.”

Western Ballet: The Nutcracker (Dec. 6–8) — Artistic Director Alexi Zubiria and Mountain-View based Western Ballet present the classic holiday tale at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Dance-Along Nutcracker (Dec. 7–8) — It’s a three decades-old holiday tradition that started as a fundraiser. Now at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, this parody production takes a different approach every year. For 2019, it’s Nutcracker in Space, with intergalactic mischief aboard the Sugar Plum Falcon.

Mark Foehringer’s Nutcracker Sweets (Dec. 7–22) — Perfect for the younger set, this 50-minute production of the classic holiday ballet is danced storytelling that is affordable, magical, zany, and fun.

ODC/Dance's Velveteen Rabbit

San Francisco Ballet: The Nutcracker (Dec. 11-29) — An evergreen thrill. With its spectacular sets, costumes, staging, and cast, the SF Ballet’s performances of Helgi Tomasson’s wonderful setting of Tchaikovsky’s classic is hard to top.

Smuin Ballet: The Christmas Ballet (Dec. 12–23) — Not Nutcracker, but still Christmas-themed, Michael Smuin’s conception allows for tradition to be updated yearly. Presented in two acts, this year’s program includes old classics such as “Ave Maria” and “Gloucestershire Wassail” in the first half, followed by “The Cool Christmas,” a contemporary collection of ballet, tap, and jazz set to pop holiday favorites.

New Ballet: The San Jose Nutcracker (Dec. 13-24) — New Ballet offers two different Nutcracker productions — the full two-act ballet set in 1905 San José, plus an abridged edition for younger children, titled My Very First Nutcracker, which runs just about an hour.

Oakland Ballet: Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker (Dec. 21–22) — The Oakland Symphony accompanies this production, which also features the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. Special offers include post-performance receptions — with holiday sweets and characters from the ballet — available as an add-on ticket purchase.

Suzy Thompson, Meredith Axelrod, and Del Rey sing the Xmas Blues at the Freight & Salvage.

On the Folk Side

The Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse

Voted Best Club Venue in this year’s Best of the Bay poll, Berkeley’s 440-seat Freight and Salvage has a full roster of unusual holiday treats in wide range of musical styles this month. Here’s a selection. You can view the complete roster here.

  • Asleep at the Wheel’s “Merry Texas Christmas Y’all” (Dec. 5-6)  — Legendary western-swing stalwarts offer a Texas twist to the holidays. The band celebrates the season with selections from a brand-new album and special guest, Chris O’Connell.

  • Holiday Uke Jam (Dec. 7) — Join SF Uke Jam leaders Cynthia Lin, Ukulenny, and the SF Uke Jam All Star band for their 7th-Annual Holiday Uke Jam. Strum and sing along on your favorite holiday classics.

  • Xmas Blues (Dec. 12) — A fun-filled holiday show with famed fiddler and blues shouter Suzy Thompson, riveting vocalist Meredith Axelrod, and resonator guitar/ukulele goddess Del Rey, featuring blues songs about Christmas and wintry weather, including vintage gems like “Christmas In Jail,” “Santa Claus Blues,” and “Cold Morning Shout.”

  • Holiday Swing Show (Dec. 17) — Maria Muldaur presents “Christmas tunes for hipsters,” with hip, swinging, humorous and irreverent Christmas songs by her favorite jazz and blues artists. Performed in collaboration with the illustrious John Jorgenson Trio.

Maria Muldaur and John Jorgenson offer "Christmas tunes for hipsters" at the Freight & Salvage

  • SWAG Holiday (Dec. 19) — SWAG (Singers With A Goal) is a social-justice oriented mixed vocal ensemble known for its harmony, colorfully rich tones, and pulsating urban rhythms. The group fosters community building by bringing love, peace, joy, hope, and togetherness in their music.

  • Windham Hill Solstice (Dec. 20) — Celebrate the winter solstice and its warm traditions with a concert of original and traditional acoustic music drawn from the multiplatinum selling Winter Solstice series as well as their many solo releases. Windham Hill founder and Grammy-winning guitarist Will Ackerman, and Grammy Award-nominated singer, fiddler, pianist, and songwriter Barbara Higbie, and the Grammy-nominated guitarist and composer Alex de Grassi come together to lead a joyous holiday concert.

Kitka | Credit: Vincent Louis Carrella

International Traditions

Molly’s Revenge: Winterdance (Dec. 6–22) — Celtic powerhouse trio Molly’s Revenge teams up with guest vocalist Amelia Hogan and Irish dancers for their 14th-annual Winterdance, an evening of music, song, and dance associated with the festive season. The performance will include Christmas songs both old and new, all played with a Celtic flavor. Concerts throughout California and points north.

Kitka: Wintersongs — Weathering the Storm (Dec. 6–22) — The vocal ensembles cherished and wildly popular December concert tradition showcases seasonal music from a wide variety of Eastern European and Eurasian lands, as well as original new works inspired by midwinter mysteries. This year’s program is Kitka's artistic response to urgent environmental concerns. Concerts will feature songs that invoke the powers of the elements in wintertime: blustering winds, storms, avalanches, snow, ice, and floods, balanced with ritual songs created to bring light, warmth, hope, and good fortune.

Mariachi Sol de Mexico returns to Davies with their "Merry-achi Christmas" show.

Mariachi Sol de Mexico: A Merry-achi Christmas (Dec. 8) — José Hernández leads Mariachi Sol de Mexico at Davies Symphony Hall for a festive musical tribute to Mexico’s Christmas traditions. Experience a multicultural celebration, with the ensemble singing and playing holiday favorites from both Mexico and America in a vibrant performance you won’t want to miss.

California Revels: A Solstice Journey Through Time (Dec. 13–22) — The Revels blends traditional music, dance, ritual, and folk plays into a program presented by a large volunteer chorus of children and adults drawn from the community, along with a number of highly talented professional actors, musicians, artists, directors, and “bearers of tradition” from many cultures. This year’s theme is about history and togetherness through generations and culture. The program recalls favorite songs and dances from the totality of Christmas Revels past, using the entire range of costumes, customs, and traditions.

Jazzy Holiday Music

Carol Faye celebrates Christmas at Geoffrey's Inner Circle

Faye Carol: Carolizing Christmas Concert (Dec. 8) — The Bay Area’s queen of jazz, blues, and R&B teams up with her dynamite pianist Joe Warner to groove you through the holiday season and propel you into the New Year at Oaklands Geoffrey’s Inner Circle.

Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers: Celebrate the Holidays (Dec. 19–22) — Lavay Smith and band bring a rollicking celebration of the holidays to SFJAZZ, performing timeless songs of the season with their joyous, dance-ready approach that blends swinging jump-blues and classic jazz.

Adam Shulman: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Dec. 19–22) — Best known as part of Marcus Shelby’s Jazz Orchestra and a creative force on the San Francisco jazz scene for the past decade, pianist Shulman reprises his tribute to Bay Area jazz legend Vince Guaraldi and his soundtrack to Charles Schulz’s 1965 holiday classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas. At SFJAZZ.