MusicWatch Holidays: Naughty and nice

Unwrapping Portland’s spiritual duality with holiday concerts for choirs, circuses, dancers, and drag queens

Ho ho ho! Oregon First Winter is fully upon us: the snow and ice and seasonal depression haven’t hit in full force yet, but it’s finally cold and rainy enough to talk about holiday music. Let’s get started with an old favorite:

Our wishlist of worthy concerts is twenty-plus items long this week (not counting the mezzanine), so we’re only going to talk about a select few–but we’ll leave the whole list for you at the end, dear reader, so you can decide for yourself who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

Choral joys, classical comforts

Nothing goes together like choirs and holiday music. Portland and environs may be known for a certain sassy grouchiness, but we’re also known for having more choral ensembles than Santa has ununionized elves. Almost all of them are celebrating the holiday season one way or another in the next few weeks, and although our darling Resonance Ensemble is off duty until early spring, the rest of the Oregon choir tribe is gearing up for year-end banquets of sparkly yuletide music.

Choral Arts Ensemble’s Yuletide: And on Earth, Peace concert at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church on the 15th and 16th features Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem, Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, and new works by a few Cascadians and a stockingfull of other living composers: Dawn Sonntag, John Hidalgo, Robert Lockwood, Thomas Curran, Abbie Betinis, Hillary Campbell, Cecilia McDowall, Ivo Antognini, and Kim André Arnesen. Programming aside, this one of the more conventional choirs in town, so if you’re looking for a quiet and well-performed holiday concert that’s neither too overtly Christmasy nor too classically unusual this is your show.

Near the other end of that spectrum is Oregon Repertory Singers, who specialize in the bigger living choral composers. Their Glory of Christmas concert at First United Methodist Church on the 13th features Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass and Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Stars, along with Francis Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium and Hodie Christus Natus Est and a handful of other seasonal treats. On the 20th and 21st, In Mulieribus presents their Star of Wonder concerts. It’s hard not to think of this female vocal ensemble as a roomful of Barbara Strozzis, giving subtle and powerful performances of mostly older music (Medieval, Renaissance) by mostly women composers (Strozzi, Hildegard of Bingen). Their holiday show this year features medieval carols from the mysterious Worcester Fragments and other wintry music of the past.

The Oregon Symphony partners with Oregon Chorale on the 18th for Comfort & Joy: A Classical Christmas, and on the 13th through 15th they’ll go full gospel with their Gospel Christmas concerts starring the Northwest Community Gospel Chorus. The latter pairing of orchestra and chorus has been running for over two decades, and puts the religious elements of holiday music front and center: the “multi-cultural chorus” draws members from “33 houses of faith” and describes its mission as bringing “a message of faith, hope, love, and joy through the perpetuation of gospel music as an original American art form.”

On the 21st and 22nd, Cappella Romana turns the spirituality up to 11 with their Christmas in Constantinople concert. Spyridon Antonopoulos–one of CR’s extraordinary singers and the founder of chant ensemble Psaltikon–leads the ensemble’s male singers in performances of Byzantine Christmas music. This choir is known for its intensity, never holding back when they have the power to overwhelm. It might be Greek to you, but you won’t find a more profoundly religious musical experience this season.

Unless, of course, you’re not tired of Handel’s Messiah yet. Cappella Romana is staying busy this month, joining Portland Baroque Orchestra for their annual performances of the complete beloved/reviled oratorio at First Baptist Church on the 13th through 15th (there’s a highlights show on the 16th for inattentive One-Minute Bible types). The present author would need several pots of strong coffee and an ounce of [redacted] to get into the spirit of this one, but there’s still a lot to be said for Handel’s great towering edifice of Christian joy. The counterpoint is simply wonderful, with its Baroque complexity and English clarity, and it’s packed with lovely melodies–ravenous ear-worms that are either the reason you love it or the reason you hate it.

And these musicians are great, well worth the price of admission regardless of what they happen to be playing–we once heard them give a very exciting performance of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which should be impossible according to the Laws of God and Man. We always say “all old music was once new,” and conductor Monica Huggett runs PBO’s period instrument specialists through sensuous, exciting interpretations that make centuries-old music sound fresh; they have the same loving and attentive attitude to living traditions that we hear in Cappella Romana and In Mulieribus. And, if you want to consider this concert primarily as a religious event–a retelling of Christ’s origin story–then it might be the best concert of the season.

But you might prefer your religious music to be a little more participatory, and you’re certainly not going to be singing along with Cappella Romana (I’ll shush you myself). You’re in luck: St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Southwest Portland is hosting a Messiah singalong on the 15th. Bring your own score or use one of the battered copies secreted in the back of the pews.

Or you may lean the other way and prefer holiday singalongs of the non-religious variety, in which case you should definitely head up to Mississippi Studios on the 18th and 19th for Low Brow Chorale’s Cheer the Fuck Up! Singalong. The local “drop-in community pop chorus” brings a massive guest list of Portland musicians for an evening of rock and pop carols as well as “holiday-adjacent” songs.

A pair of cozy chamber music concerts vie for your affections the afternoon of the 15th. At 2 p.m., pianist Eric Nordin and cellist Hannah Hillebrand perform cello sonatas by Britten and Rachmaninoff on their Holiday Pajama Jam show at Re:Sound in Goose Hollow. Mulled wine and homemade pastries will be available, and if you have the audacity to actually wear your pajamas they’ll give you a free drink! Remember to change into your church clothes before taking a sleigh ride through the Vista Ridge Tunnels out Sunset Highway to Beaverton’s Southminster Presbyterian Church for pianist Dianne Davies’ interdisciplinary Soli Deo Gloria concert at 4. A bevy of dancers and visual artists complement Davies’ mashups of Chopin nocturnes and Christmas carols, with appearances by local composers Dan Brugh, Adam Eason, and Mike Hsu.

Over on the weirder side of Portland classical holiday concerts, Opera On Tap celebrates Festivus at McMenamins Kennedy School with a free all-ages show on the 29th. Previous years have featured all the usual traditional Festivus activities: feats of strength in the form of sing-offs, the raising of the Festivus pole, and charitable giving.

Naughty and nice

Ah, but you want holiday concerts that aren’t all nice and proper and Jesusy, don’t you? Don’t lie: all you want for Christmas is cabaret and burlesque shows, hot jazz and twerking circuses, genderbent Batman and killer clowns. Here’s a handful of coal to keep you warm this month.

On the 16th, local singer-songwriter Storm Large joins the Oregon Symphony for the Storm Large Holiday Ordeal. Large keeps making inroads with the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi, earlier this year giving a raucous, genre-defying performance of Kurt Weill’s saucy Seven Deadly Sins that knocked our stockings off. Now she’s bringing her long-running holiday spectacle to the Schnitz for an evening of frosty contrarian fun.

At Revolution Hall on the 19th and 20th, the Austin-based musical satire Batman Returns Returns makes its Portland debut. It’s probably too much to hope for a loving recreation of the beloved Elfman score (no kidding, it’s one of his best), but the cast is enough to get us excited anyways. Austin rocker Sabrina Ellis plays tragically heroic Batman, and shirtless wonder Har Mar Superstar plays the tragically wicked Penguin. Catwoman–the actual star of this story–will be played by local singer-composer Holland Andrews, who performs as Like A Villain and startled Portland audiences last year as part of the Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics on Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form with the Oregon Symphony. Local punk icon Toody Cole of Dead Moon and Pierced Arrows fame plays the indefatigable Alfred, drummer Bim Ditson of Portland DIY contrarians And And And plays Gotham’s pathetic mayor, and Lance “cinematographer for the Jackass trilogy” Bangs of all people plays stodgy Commissioner Gordon.

The best bit of casting, recently announced, is Portland rockabilly star Sallie Ford as “Max Shrek.” That requires a bit of unpacking. I’ll bet you forgot that Christopher Walken was in this old movie, playing the story’s true villain: Max Shreck, whose name literally means “maximum fear.” Max Schreck is also the mysterious German actor who played Nosferatu in F.W. Murnau’s horror classic, appropriate for a character who uses the Penguin’s colorful political villainy to further his more mundane power-plant scheme (nothing like the real world, of course). Ford’s role combines all that with the familiar green ogre Shrek, a glorious pun which no self-respecting theater director could resist.

On the 21st, Oregon Symphony partners with Cirque du Soleil offshoot Troupe Vertigo for Cirque Nutcracker, an evening of Tchaikovsky and circus acrobatics–perfect for those of us who want to hear that beautiful Russian fairytale music without the burdensome Balanchine ballet that’s normally attached to it. If you just can’t wait–or if they sell out, which is likely–you could be naughty and head to Dante’s a day earlier for Twerk du Soleil on the 20th. There will be actual fire at this one, along with other circus acts, a whole bunch of dancers, members of local “electro swing” act High Step Society, and a twerking competition at midnight.

If you want to get even naughtier, head down to the Aladdin Theater on the 22nd, where Portland singers Dru Rutledge and Jimmy Wilcox celebrate the season with the return of Queer Eye for the Magi: A Christmas Cabaret. Special guests include RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Monét X Change and Portland’s legendary Darcelle XV, officially the oldest drag queen alive. At Revolution Hall on the 23rd, another Portland legend–singer Tony Starlight–celebrates 25 years of his old-timey variety-show style Christmas concerts with a big shiny shindig featuring the All-Star Horns. Conductor Bo Ayers, a veteran of Liberace boot camp, leads the eight-piece big band through cheesily nostalgic holiday hits–watch out for drummer Micah Hummel!

We close with Christmas Day and the Jack London Burlesque Christmas Spectacular–get yourself a free lift in Krampus’ crowded bag of bad kids and get cozy down in the Jack London basement for an evening of “burlesque, boylesque and cabaret.”

Christmas and other classical holidays

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