As usual, we enter the Christmas and holiday season with heavier thoughts than just peace and joy on our minds, so we look to music and contemplation to soothe our perturbed spirits. The musicians and artists below keep meeting this challenge year after year in a kind of ministry of healing. If you need an infusion of good tidings to go along with your COVID booster, you’ve come to the right place. The grand old traditions continue alongside a flow of new music, zany fun and introspection combine, and young kids accompany parents and grandparents to hear carols and watch dancing snowflakes. And maybe we forget about shopping and holiday preparations for a few hours. Scan the smorgasbord below, and be amazed.
At Davies Symphony Hall
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 movies accompanied by live orchestra.
“Deck the Hall” (Dec. 4) — The SF Symphony and guests play a family-friendly concert of festive holiday favorites and sing-alongs led by conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser.
“The Colors of Christmas” (Dec. 6–7) — Legendary vocalists Oleta Adams, Peabo Bryson, Ruben Studdard, and Jody Watley join the SF Symphony and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir for a thrilling program of Christmas classics and greatest hits.
Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 9–10) — The not-to-be-missed holiday staple is led by renowned Baroque conductor Masaaki Suzuki and features a lineup of world-class soloists.
“Cool Yule Christmas” (Dec. 13) — In a tribute to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Broadway vocalist Capathia Jenkins and jazz singer/pianist Tony DeSare present a program of holiday hits and jazz standards.
“Holiday Gaiety” (Dec. 15) — Drag sensation Peaches Christ and conductor Edwin Outwater join the SF Symphony for an adult-themed holiday variety show that promises to be a fabulous event.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Dec. 16–17) — Enjoy this classic Christmas film accompanied by a live performance of James Horner’s orchestral score courtesy of the SF Symphony.
Holiday Brass (Dec. 20) — The glorious SF Symphony brass section performs a mix of holiday favorites.
Elf — In Concert (Dec. 21–22) — Experience the heartwarming holiday classic starring Will Ferrell along with a live performance of the score by the SF Symphony.
“Merry-Achi Christmas” (Dec. 23) — José Hernández leads Mariachi Sol de México in a multicultural celebration of holiday music from Mexico and America.
Harry Connick Jr. and His Band (Dec. 24) — Join fan-favorite jazz singer and pianist Harry Connick Jr. for a Christmas Eve concert of classics and originals.
New Year’s Eve With Seth MacFarlane (Dec. 31) — Academy Award and Grammy-nominated crooner Seth MacFarlane joins the SF Symphony for a program of big band-era standards and holiday hits.
Find tickets and more information on the San Francisco Symphony’s website.
Nutcrackers and Other Dance Delights
ODC/Dance: The Velveteen Rabbit (Dec. 1–11) — Rather than produce another Nutcracker, director and choreographer KT Nelson offers a musical fable based on the beloved children’s book by Margery Williams. The tale is narrated for the benefit of young children and features music by Benjamin Britten. ODC’s dancers are well versed in this seasonal special, long an annual tradition at the company.
Smuin Ballet: The Christmas Ballet (Dec. 1–24) — Another “not The Nutcracker” holiday ballet, the company present Michael Smuin’s attractive alternative. Combining ballet, contemporary, character, Broadway jazz, and tap in two acts, the show features just as eclectic a roster of music. It plays the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (Dec. 1–4) and Sunset Center in Carmel (Dec. 9–10) before settling into Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Dec. 14–24).
Mark Foehringer Dance Project: Nutcracker Sweets (Dec. 3–18) — This is an abridged version of The Nutcracker set to Foehringer’s contemporary dance and ballet choreography. It’s a full-on production, with sets by Peter Crompton, costumes by Emmy nominee Richard Battle, and crucially, a live chamber orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s score.
San Francisco Ballet: The Nutcracker (Dec. 8–27) — Helgi Thomasson’s classic production with beautiful sets and costumes, and backed by the full SF Ballet Orchestra, always introduces new and newly promoted company members to the public, in addition to featuring the company’s formidable principal dancers. If you love ballet in the grand tradition, this is it.
Marin Ballet: The Nutcracker (Dec. 10–11) — Marin Center hosts Marin Ballet for three performances of the holiday classic, with full sets and costumes and 125 dancers choreographed by Performance Director Julia Adam.
New Ballet: The San José Nutcracker (Dec. 16–18) — Presented in partnership with History San José, this production sets the ballet in the South Bay at the turn of the last century. It features landmarks of the era, including a growing replica of the historic San José light tower and a skyline of the city circa 1905. Aside from the setting, the performances showcase New Ballet’s professional dancers, students from the company’s training program, Ragazzi Boys Chorus, and dancers from Los Lupeños Juvenil. And there’s a live orchestra to play Tchaikovsky’s score.
Oakland Ballet: Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker (Dec. 17–18) — In addition to its dancers, Oakland Ballet can boast the participation of Oakland Symphony and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. At the Paramount Theatre.
Kathy Mata Ballet: Winter Holiday Showcase (Dec. 18) — A local group new to us, Kathy Mata Ballet performances “are offered free of charge, with an aim to benefit seniors and local community charities in the SF Bay Area.” The Dec. 18 recital at ODC Theater features some live piano accompaniment.
Bach and Handel
California Bach Society: “Christmas in the British Isles” (Dec. 2–4) — One of the Bay Area’s best choirs with an early-music bent is back with a holiday show that focuses on the island where caroling became a thing, definitively memorialized in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. You know they’ll be singing a bunch of favorite holiday songs in this show.
San Francisco Bach Choir: “Songs of Spirit and Joy” (Dec. 3–4) — The most beloved of the candlelight concerts, with Artistic Director Magen Solomon’s personal and thoughtful stamp. The candlelit processional (to “The Boar’s Head Carol”) leads to a concert of music by Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, J.S. Bach, Michael Praetorius, Samuel Scheidt, Alessandro Scarlatti, Guillaume Dufay, and Americans like William Billings and Nathaniel Dett. Think of it as carols-plus. As always, The Whole Noyse brass ensemble will be in attendance.
Voices of Music: “Holiday Concertos: Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi” (Dec. 9–11) — The annual concerto-fest on holiday themes is graced by formidable talents and Voices of Music regulars like Elizabeth Blumenstock, Chloe Kim, YuEun Kim, and Katherine Kyme on violins and Dominic Favia, who’ll play Georg Philipp Telemann’s Trumpet Concerto in D Major.
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale: Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 14–18) — It may feel strange having Richard Egarr instead of Nic McGegan conduct PBO in these concerts, but Egarr has his own long relationship with Handel’s oratorio. As always, he and the orchestra are bringing in a stellar roster of soloists.
American Bach Soloists: “A Baroque Christmas” (Dec. 14), Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 15–16), and “A Baroque New Year’s Eve” (Dec. 31) — Hearing Messiah performed at Grace Cathedral by American Bach Soloists is something everyone should be able to experience, and yet tickets are limited and sell out early. You might think that setting doesn’t have much to do with how you receive the music, but you’ll revise your opinion if you hear this performance. Also at Grace, ABS is contributing “A Baroque Christmas” to the festivities, which is an abridged Messiah featuring only the Christmas portion (Part 1) of the work, plus some Christmas pastorales to fill out the evening. This is such a great idea you wonder if anyone else has ever put it into practice. And ABS rounds out the season with a New Year’s Eve concert, again featuring star soprano Liv Redpath, with bass Alex Rosen, in arias and duets from major Handel operas as well as Henry Purcell’s King Arthur, Jean Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, and La finta ninfa by Antonio Vivaldi.
Nova Vista Symphony: “Holiday Festival” (Dec. 3) — The largest longstanding community orchestra in the Santa Clara Valley is joined by the San José Symphonic Choir for an eclectic and entertaining evening of festive fare. Winter-inspired pieces by Otto Nicolai, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Edward Elgar are complemented by arrangements of tunes everyone will recognize, including Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” At the Church of the Ascension in Saratoga.
Oakland Symphony: “Let Us Break Bread Together – The Music of Earth, Wind & Fire” (Dec. 11) — In their annual rollicking holiday party, Oakland Symphony and Chorus are joined by conductor Lenny Wee, arranger for the Grammys, The Tonight Show, and more. Along with special Bay Area guests, the joyous celebration draws its energy from the music of Earth, Wind & Fire. At the Paramount.
Marin Symphony: Holiday Pops (Dec. 13) — Celebrate the season with your friends and family as the Marin Symphony presents a program of holiday-inspired music, with Principal Pops Conductor Stuart Chafetz and soprano Dee Donasco. Family fare, and Santa will be there.
Choruses and Caroling
San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus: “Holiday Spectacular” (Dec. 2–24) — Billed with the punning ad line of “We’ve got some holiday Cher for you,” SFGMC is introducing a holiday-themed Cher medley into a concert that emphasizes entertainment and fun, from “Jingle Bells” to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” to Morten Lauridsen’s “Sure on This Shining Night.” It’s at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco (Dec. 2–3), Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage (Dec. 11), the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park (Dec. 17), and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco (Dec. 24).
Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir: “Still Standing” (Dec. 3), 14th Annual South Bay Holiday Gospel Concert (Dec. 22), and 33rd Christmas Eve Concert (Dec. 24) — Yes, OIGC is participating in Oakland Symphony’s annual “Let Us Break Bread Together” lovefest on Dec. 11. No, that’s not all the chorus is up to during the holiday season. First, there’s the 37th annual holiday concert, titled “Still Standing” this year. OIGC will be joined by two other of the organization’s eight choirs, the Oakland Interfaith Youth Choir and the Oakland Interfaith Community Choir. The choruses are also joined by a roster of soloists, all presided over, of course, by Terrance Kelly. OIGC then returns to the Mountain View Center for the Arts on Dec. 22 for the South Bay Holiday Gospel Concert, presented again after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Finally, you can catch the choristers at the Great American Music Hall in S.F. on Christmas Eve, early show at 7 p.m., late show at 9:30 p.m.
Marin Symphony Chamber Chorus: “Holiday Choral Concerts by Candlelight”(Dec. 3–4) — The lovely Saint Raphael Church is the setting for this candlelit choral concert, which also features, as ever, Marin Girls Chorus and the Marin Symphony brass. Kevin Fox’s choristers take on some less familiar repertory, like Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata and “Mid-winter” by Bob Chilcott. But Marin Girls Chorus comes through with a selection of carols, including the Ukrainian tune “Shchedryk” (“Carol of the Bells”).
Voci Women’s Vocal Ensemble: “We Rise! Songs of Overcoming” (Dec. 3–4) — Appropriately enough for Voci, this concert presents recent music in a variety of styles by 12 different women composers and poets. In keeping with the time of year, the chorus sees the program as focusing on the themes of “encouragement, acceptance, self-confidence, hope, healing, and kindness” for the “challenging times we all currently face.”
Santa Clara Chorale: “String Up the Lights” (Dec. 9–11) — Harkening back to the Chorale’s very first season, in 1967–1968, the group returns to Antonio Vivaldi’s setting of the Magnificat to anchor its Christmas concert. There will be plenty of carols, but also Dark Night of the Soul by Ola Gjeilo and The Longest Nights (2015) by Minneapolis-based composer Timothy C. Takach.
Symphony San José Chorale: “Carols in the California” (Dec. 10) — San José’s California Theatre again hosts the powerful SSJ Chorale under the direction of Elena Sharkova, joined by Cantabile Youth Singers of Silicon Valley. Now in its 15th year, the concert features classic carols and an audience sing-along.
Masterworks Chorale: “Carols, Colors, and Christmas” (Dec. 10) and “Carols and Lullabies” (Dec. 11) — The full Chorale sings two separate programs, one for younger children at 2 p.m. on Dec. 10 at the Congregational Church of San Mateo and the other the next afternoon. The centerpiece of Sunday’s concert is Conrad Susa’s enduring Carols and Lullabies. Note that the children’s concert is free for everyone, with an option to donate.
Vallejo Choral Society: “Walk With Me” (Dec. 10–11) — In concerts in Benicia and Vallejo, this group treads a slightly different path, giving over its holiday program to famous spirituals. The major work on the concerts is a Requiem by Eleanor Daley, which the Choral Society says is “an uplifting, gentle, and contemporary meditation on life and loss.”
Peninsula Women’s Chorus: “Songs of Connection: The Ties That Bind” (Dec. 10 and 18) — Artistic Director Anne K. Hege puts together another thoughtful concert centered on a PWC commission. Jennifer Wilsey’s “Would You Like to Have It All?” celebrates “the beauty of female friendship by means of text gathered from PWC and crafted into a libretto by Lynn Marie Kirby and Denise Newman.” There’s also a co-commission being premiered in these concerts, Karen Siegel’s “Despertar,” to a poem by Carlos Pintado, plus Pamela Z’s “Pen Pal,” Amy X Neuburg’s “Before I Forget,” and a few classical selections from Felix Mendelssohn, Aaron Copland, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Grace Cathedral: Various programs (Dec. 10–23) — It’s not an exaggeration to say that Christmas at Grace Cathedral is a big production. In addition to the masses on Dec. 24 and 25, full of music and performances themselves, the Choir of Men and Boys sing the annual “Cathedral Christmas” concerts on two weekends (Dec. 10–11 and 17–18). The Bay Brass joins Interim Director of Music Christopher Keady for “A Brass and Organ Christmas” (Dec. 12), and there are family sing-alongs (Dec. 10, 17, 21, and 22). New this season is harpist Destiny Muhammad and “her cool, eclectic Sonic Ensemble” who present “Soulful Joy” (Dec. 19).
WomenSing: “Out of Darkness, Light” (Dec. 11) — This concert reflects the various ways that the winter solstice affects and engenders the December holiday season, with “songs derived from various cultures describing these universal experiences of light shining out of darkness.”
San Francisco Choral Artists: “Christmas Postcards” (Dec. 11–18) — In keeping with Artistic Director Magen Solomon’s never-ending exploration of choral repertoire, the Choral Artists will be singing holiday songs from around the world and four world premieres (you read that right), including works by composer-in-residence Samuel C. Nedel and composer-not-in-residence Caroline Mallonee.
Chanticleer: “A Chanticleer Christmas” (Dec. 11–23) — The one Christmas concert to rule them all. This men’s chorus is one of the best, and its Christmas program is a tried-and-true favorite, featuring music from throughout a very expansive repertory, this year including some of former Music Director Joseph Jennings’s spectacular arrangements of spirituals. Right now, the singers are touring this program across the U.S., but they lands in Oakland on Dec. 11 and give nine performances around the Bay Area, as well as two in Carmel and one in Sacramento.
The Choral Project/San José Chamber Orchestra: “Winter’s Gifts: Peace” (Dec. 16–17) — Daniel Hughes’s chorus and Barbara Day Turner’s ensemble get together again for a concert on the theme of hope. The major work is Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory’s “Hope for Resolution,” “which pairs the plainchant ‘Divinum mysterium’ with the traditional South African song ‘Thula Sizwe’ (Nation, do not cry).” The piece was “written for Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk — two figures in history who in working together dismantled apartheid.”
Santa Cruz Chorale: “Christmas With the Chorale” (Dec. 17–18) — Accompanied by the Monterey Bay Sinfonietta, the Chorale will dole out a generous measure of Christmas carols, along with music by Jacobus Clemens non Papa, Vicente Lusitano, Dietrich Buxtehude, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Eric Whitacre, and others. At Holy Cross Church.
Ragazzi Boys Chorus: “Magnificent Wonders” (Dec. 3 and 11) — Ragazzi’s Concert Group, Choral Scholars, and Young Men’s Ensemble light up Palo Alto’s First United Methodist Church and San Francisco’s Old First Church with this concert of carols and sacred works. Music includes Rosephanye Powell’s “Non Nobis Domine” and John Rutter’s “For the Beauty of the Earth.”
Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir: “Candlelight Concert: Lighting the World” (Dec. 10) — This candlelit concert promises to keep to the organization’s mission to “explore innovative new works tackling social issues, reintroduce audiences to historical pieces by composers marginalized during their time, and connect to other cultures through singing repertoire from around the world. Through our music, we connect to each other and inspire others to live in harmony.” At First Congregational Church of Berkeley.
Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco: “Carols by Candlelight” (Dec. 10) — Movements from Shawn Kirchner’s “American folk oratorio” The Light of Hope Returning highlight this candlelit concert by a superb group of young singers. At Old First Church.
Golden State Youth Orchestra: Holiday Pops (Dec. 11) — Though not confined to Christmas or pops (Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture is neither), this promises to be a high-spirited affair, with Isaac Lee playing Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Bassoon Concerto and the orchestra taking on Samuel-Coleridge Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert and Leroy Anderson’s A Christmas Festival, among other delights.
iSing Silicon Valley: Holiday Concert (Dec. 17) — Three-hundred singers fill Mission Santa Clara to present carols and new commissions by Andrew Smith and PinkZebra.
San Francisco Boys Chorus: “Noël, Noël, Noël!” (Dec. 17) — After joining the SF Symphony on Dec. 4, this excellent boys’ chorus brings its own carols-plus-seasonal-songs concert to Calvary Presbyterian Church.
San Francisco Girls Chorus/Amateur Music Network: Holiday Sing-Along (Dec. 2) — Bring the whole family to this holiday sing-along. The main event is recommended for ages 10 and up, but the SF Girls Chorus will provide a free simultaneous sing-along event for children ages 5–9.
Golden Gate Symphony & Chorus: Handel’s “Sing It Yourself” Messiah (Dec. 8 and 12) — This sing-along Messiah is an annual tradition, with two opportunities to take part in Handel’s rousing choruses with conductor Urs Leonhardt Steiner and soloists. At the Benicia Clock Tower (Dec. 8) and at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco (Dec. 12).
San Francisco Choral Society: “A Festival of Carols” (Dec. 17) — Gather with family and friends for this celebration featuring sing-along carols, a string quartet, special guest artists, and repertoire by Handel, Ola Gjeilo, Eric Whitacre, Moses Hogan, and more.
A Jazzy Christmas
SFJAZZ: Various programs (Dec. 1 – Jan. 1, 2023) — SFJAZZ presents a varied lineup of artists in its holiday concert series, which includes the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas, blues-infused original Hanukkah songs, and The Nutcracker by way of Duke Ellington. Acts include band Pink Martini, the Marcus Shelby New Orchestra with vocalist Tiffany Austin, and jazz/cabaret singer Paula West. Bogotá-based Latin jazz ensemble Monsieur Periné takes the stage for a set of New Year’s concerts (Dec. 29 – Jan. 1, 2023).
Maria Muldaur: “Maria Muldaur’s Holiday Swing” (Dec. 10 and 15) — Maria Muldaur and her Jazzabelle Quintet bring to you a swinging evening of vintage jazz and blues Christmas tunes from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. An A-team of some of the Bay Area’s finest jazz musicians will be presenting her special “Holiday Swing” show, a fun evening of what Maria calls “Christmas tunes for hipsters.” There will be no sappy, overdone, pedestrian songs here, only her special collection of rare gems. At Baltic Kiss in Richmond and Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.
Piedmont Piano Company: Nicolas Bearde and Friends, “Celebrating the Season” (Dec. 17–18) — Silky-voiced baritone Nicolas Bearde gives holiday classics and carols his signature high-energy makeover in a special, swinging, and soulful concert. The jazz and blues singer is joined by John R. Burr (piano), Ruth Davies (bass), and Leon Joyce Jr. (drums).
Alternative Holiday Traditions
Presidio Theatre: Sleeping Beauty (Dec. 1–30) — Panto in the Presidio returns with Sleeping Beauty this December. A wildly funny musical mashup of true love, talking dogs, singing chickens, dancing ghosts, and enough fairy magic for the entire family. This holiday delight will have audience members out of their seats to get in on the action. There are two discounted public preview performances (Dec. 1–2). Opening night is Dec. 3.
Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse: Various programs (Dec. 4–21) — Some of the musical highlights at the Berkeley joint this December: Kalani Pe‘a, one of the most exceptional talents in a new generation of Hawaiian musicians, celebrates the warmth and special aloha of the holiday season in his “Hawaiian Christmas” show (Dec. 4), sharing much-loved songs from both Western and Hawaiian roots. The Klezmatics, world-renowned and Grammy-winning superstars of the klezmer world, perform song from their 2006 album Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah (Dec. 17). And Barbara Higbie, known for her ability to compose in a style that is both genre-bending and accessible, has a CD Release and Winter Solstice Celebration (Dec. 18).
California Revels: The Butterfly Lovers of Gold Mountain (Dec. 9–18) — Follow the journey of a young Chinese opera singer from China to Gold Rush-era California. This incredible moment in history ushers in a new age of movement, international trade, and multicultural life in the Golden State. You will be treated to Chinese music and opera as seen through the eyes of Americans and have a chance to view Californians — native and new — through the eyes of one of the world’s most ancient, enduring cultures. At First Congregational Church of Oakland.
Green Music Center: Various programs (Dec. 9–18) — Christmas comes to the performing arts center on the Sonoma State University campus. Boston Brass and the Brass All-Stars Big Band present “Christmas Bells Are Swingin’” (Dec. 10), featuring fiery big-band arrangements of classics like the Stan Kenton Christmas carols, “Greensleeves,” and “Motown Jingle Bells.” And settle in for “Christmas With Bach” (Dec. 17–18) as the Sonoma Bach Choir and Live Oak Baroque Orchestra draw from the master’s works of the mid-1720s.
Kitka: “Wintersongs” (Dec. 9–18) — For more than two decades, Kitka’s annual Wintersongs programs have explored songs from Eastern Europe that summon the return of light and hope in times of difficulty and darkness. This December, Kitka sings in solidarity with Ukraine, giving voice to the lush harmonies of traditional Ukrainian polyphony as the program’s centerpiece.
Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night (Dec. 17) — This free holiday event is linked to other Unsilent Night celebrations around the world. The original composition by Phil Kline, written specifically to be heard outdoors in the month of December, takes the form of a street promenade in which the audience becomes the performer in an interactive “boombox parade.” The 60-minute event begins and ends at Mission Dolores Park.
Golden Bough: “Christmas in a Celtic Land” (Dec. 23) — Share laughter, songs, and joy as Golden Bough performs rare versions of Celtic songs of winter, as well as its unique take on better-known Christmas carols.