Wintertime concerts

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday December 3, 2019
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San Francisco Performances will present Dawn Upshaw and the Brentano String Quartet. Photo: Courtesy the artist
San Francisco Performances will present Dawn Upshaw and the Brentano String Quartet. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Love it or loathe it, or something in-between, the holidays are here, and Christmas music is everywhere. Regardless of taste, religion, or lack thereof, music-lovers can still agree: a cozy concert helps cure the wintertime blues. From intimate recitals to large-scale choral works, San Francisco and Bay Area venues warm to a wide variety of repertoire. There are even dueling "Messiahs" vying for listeners.

December brings beloved down-to-earth diva Dawn Upshaw and the Brentano String Quartet to the Herbst Theatre on Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m., with music of Mozart, Respighi, and Schoenberg. There is nothing too Christmassy here, but a chance to visit with Upshaw in the jewel-box Herbst Theatre sounds a treat.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale with Music Director Nicholas McGegan will "fire up the menorahs this holiday season: the conqu'ring hero comes!" Handel's oratorio "Judas Maccabaeus" opens Thurs., Dec. 5, 7 p.m. at the Herbst, featuring local favorite tenor Nicholas Phan in the title role. Chorale director Bruce Lamott and a fine cast begin a four-performance run that continues through the weekend in Palo Alto and Berkeley. For Handel oratorio-lovers who keep "Messiah" in a separate box, McGegan and his expert PBO forces are adding special interest to the season.

The annual "The Future Is Now: Adler Fellows Concert" celebrates the finale of the 2019 San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowship on Fri., Dec. 6, 7:30 p.m. at Herbst Theatre. A varied program features conductor Eun Sun Kim leading the SFO Orchestra. Adler Fellows concerts are a guaranteed thrill, and the 2019 crop is especially exciting. Some of the rising stars are already breaking out, making big news and auspicious professional debuts.

Dec. 11-14 brings something of a choral commotion to town as two different presentations of Handel's enduring masterpiece "Messiah" appear side-by-side. American Bach Soloists begins the collegial competition with three performances Wed.-Fri., Dec. 11-13, all 7:30 p.m., in the resonant acoustic of SF's Grace Cathedral. Jeffrey Thomas conducts the ABS period-instrument orchestra, renowned American Bach Choir, and a quartet of soloists including soprano Helene Brunet, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Powers, tenor Steven Brennfleck, and baritone Hadleigh Adams.

It is a self-recommending event, but wait there's more, and it's just as tempting. The San Francisco Symphony performs "Messiah" annually in festive, pine-forested Davies Symphony Hall. Each year brings new editions and a fresh configuration of soloists. SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin continues the tradition Dec. 13 & 14, 8 p.m. Performances featuring the SFS and Chorus, soprano Lauren Snouffer, tenor Ben Bliss, and bass Adam Lau offer a special casting coup: countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in his SFS debut. Young Mr. Cohen is a 2018-19 Adler Fellow who is also singing in "The Future Is Now" concert. If you haven't caught him yet, don't wait. The kid from Brooklyn currently lives in SF, but his rocketing career assures international assignments.

Dec. 10-23, treasured "Orchestra of Voices" Chanticleer presents "A Chanticleer Christmas" in Berkeley, Carmel, Petaluma, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and Oakland. I will catch them at St. Ignatius Church, SF, on Sat., Dec. 14, 8 p.m. The evergreen ensemble has been shaking the Scrooge out of me for years. Christmas with them is a tradition I put on a par with Irish whisky eggnog.

Cal Performances presents Jonathan Biss performing The Complete Piano Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven in Hertz Hall. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega  

Next is a trip to the East Bay and Hertz Hall on Sun., Dec. 15, 3 p.m. Cal Performances presents pianist Jonathan Biss in the penultimate recital of his ongoing seven-concert cycle playing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. A provocative scholar, Biss is first a gifted musician. He brings the passion of youth to both endeavors. His fascinating "Beethoven's Shadow" and "Coda" are available online. Both convey an immersion in Beethoven and the intellectual and technical challenges posed by the 32 sonatas. The release of the final volume in his complete recorded series coincides with his December recital.

Mon., Dec. 16, brings a return to Davies Hall at 7 p.m. for San Francisco Girls Chorus, Valerie Sainte-Agathe, Conductor, and Bridget Kibbey, Harp, and their popular annual holiday concert. The program features Benjamin Britten's exquisite "A Ceremony of Carols," and "The Fayrfax Carol" by another modern-day British composer, Thomas Ades. Bay Area vocal ensemble Clerestory joins in the Britten with hundreds of choristers including seven levels of the Chorus School, the Premier Ensemble and SFGC alumnae. Bay Area experimental duo The Living Earth Show also performs. SFS Music Director Designate Esa-Pekka Salonen's "Dona Nobis Pacem" is on the bill, with traditional holiday fare. The SFGC is a class organization with high musical values. This may be the biggest hit of the season. Tickets:, more info:

New Century Chamber Orchestra presents "Christmas with Anne Sofie Von Otter" Dec. 18-20, starting in Palo Alto and ending in Berkeley. The performance in SF is Thurs., Dec. 19, 7:30 p.m. at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. The glamorous but earthy Swedish mezzo-soprano joins NCCO's concertmaster Daniel Hope for a lovely program ranging from season-themed instrumental selections (Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel) to vocal pieces by Bach, Irving Berlin, and Thad Jones. The Swedes have lilting traditional carols, too. We expect encores.