Chamber Music Northwest Orion Quartet The Old Church Portland Oregon

MusicWatch: Midwinter night’s dreams

Your guide to making last-minute holiday music plans through the New Year, from Nutcrackers to Pink Martinis.


“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” Norman Rockwell, 1937. Illustration for “Reader’s Digest” Christmas gift subscription card. Oil on canvas. Collection of Mr. Mort Kunstler, courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

We are now in the shadowy penumbra time between the Winter Solstice and Christmas Day–the beginning of The Ten-Day Weirdness leading down to New Year’s Eve. There are three chocolates left in your advent calendar. There are Three Shopping Days Til Xmas. Meanwhile, winter has well and truly begun. Even as you read this, a glorious cold front is sweeping across Oregon, bearing ice and snow and power outages, the harbinger of Midwinter.

Most of the holiday concerts have already happened–either you went or you didn’t. And we’re no longer in the Universal Streaming Era, meaning if you missed Cappella Romana singing Handel’s Messiah with Portland Baroque Orchestra, or Trinity Episcopal Cathedral singing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with same, well, then, you actually missed it. No savesies this year. The resurrection will not be televised.

But you still have time to get on the Nutcracker bandwagon with all the other misfit toys. There were at least three of these this year in Oregon, and two remain: Oregon Ballet Theater’s production and Eugene Ballet’s. No doubt you’ve read about both of these productions here recently, and one of the many benefits of a long run (seven-plus days) versus a single, one-time event is that you can read about it while it’s still happening. And one nice thing about The Nutcracker–at least from the present author’s perspective–is that it’s so wonderfully Christmasy without being at all Churchy.

You can read about the OBT Nutcracker here, here, and here. Tickets are still on sale for performances through Christmas Eve, and are available here.

You can read about Eugene Ballet’s Nutcracker, and the extraordinary story of the mentor-driven “training orchestra” that brings the iconic Tchaikovsky score to life every year, in Brett Campbell’s recent profile here. This one also runs through Christmas Eve, so you might have a tough decision ahead of you. Tickets available here.

Another fine Oregon tradition is Christmas at The Old Church with pianist Michael Allen Harrison and vocalist Julianne Johnson, which made its return to live performances last year. This is one you can not only still attend in person (tickets are available through Christmas Eve), but could also livestream from your cabin in the woods.

Harrison will also perform a solo piano set on the 30th at The Grotto, as part of that venerable venue’s Christmas Festival of Lights. This is another of those classically Oregonian holiday traditions, one which is fundamentally local and therefore inherently unstreamable. The Grotto is a physical place in an actual location on Northeast Sandy Boulevard in Portland. You have to actually go there, in person, by car or by bike or by Tri-Met (take the 12 bus, as the nearest Max station is inconveniently located).

There’s a calendar of choral ceremonies (somewhat interrupted by the aforementioned Cold Front) which you can access here. Up next, on Thursday and Friday the 22nd and 23rd: Blueprint Ensemble Arts (a Portland-based community choir), The Grotto Carolers Quartet, and more. Remember to bring a nonperishable food item for Snow Cap Community Charities, and keep an eye on The Grotto website for weather updates.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is another holiday tradition like Nutcracker–very Christmasy, not too Churchy. It’s got a nice magical redemption arc, but it’s more about capitalism and social welfare than it is overtly about virgin births and Palestinian mangers and whatnot. No, this story could practically be a Buddhist fable about overcoming greed, hate, fear, ignorance, and injustice. Portland Playhouse’s production of the musical version by Rick Lombardo and Anna Lackaff runs through the 30th.

Another fine winter tradition that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Christmas, or any other holiday: the Family Visit. This is the time when school’s out, businesses are closed for the end of the year, people take time off, hogs get slaughtered and cured, and so on. Whether or not anyone’s coming from out of town, this is a time when relatives who haven’t seen each other often or recently get to commune and catch up and make new memories together.

That can have its difficult side, when Grandma sees the kids for the first time in a year and can’t believe how big they’ve gotten, or when the college students come home full of Radical New Ideas, or when Billy brings his boyfriend to Christmas dinner and silently dares Grandpa to say peep about it. And there’s always the Festivus Airing of Grievances to endure, and the Feats of Strength, and other Holiday Ordeals.

Portland Youth Philharmonic is celebrating the friendlier type of experience with its post-Christmas “Up In The Air” concert on the 26th. The whole PYP family will be there: Portland Youth Philharmonic, Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra, Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, Portland Youth String Ensemble, even an Alumni Orchestra. They’ll be playing music by Holst, Sousa, Vaughan Williams, John Williams, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the world premiere of a new piece by Portland’s Favorite Local Composer: Kenji Bunch. The fearsome violist/composer and Fear No Music head honcho had this to say about his new piece (from PYP’s press release):

I’ve always enjoyed the state motto of Oregon, Alis volat propriis (she flies with her own wings). I interpret the phrase as a hopeful affirmation of self-reliance and the promise and potential of youthful curiosity. As such, it brings to mind the many fearless capers of my own children as well as those we grown-ups survived in our earlier days. I wanted this short, propulsive fanfare to embody this kind of energy, and filled it with gestures that ascend and soar, and hopefully uplift listeners of any age.

As for those Awkward Family Moments: we invite you to take in some of Resonance Ensemble’s recent programming, which will be inspiring to some and infuriating to others. In either case, their recent “We Dissent” concert–available on YouTube–is sure to be an invigorating conversation starter if you put it up on the big screen TV by the Yule Log while the coffee’s brewing and the pies are cooling.

Same goes for any Resonance concert, really, and several of them are archived on their YouTube channel–probably the most robust and vital channel produced by any Oregon music group ever. Head over there now and you can also find their “Under the Overpass” series, highlighting locations around Portland; their “Commissions for Now” series, celebrating living composers and poets; and their “My Requiem Story” series, documenting the creation of Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem. That last one may seem a little gloomy, but is it really any gloomier than celebrating the birth of an infant god destined for a gruesome death at the hands of a cruel empire?

Portland Center Stage presents Hair at the Armory Portland Oregon

Yeah, that’s exactly the sort of thing those damned college kids are going to be saying at dinner this weekend. Better get used to it, Grandpa.

Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?

The infamous “Spring” concerto from Vivaldi’s infamous Four Seasons is one of those über-ubiquitous cultural artifacts–like Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or Beethoven’s Fifth. And, just like those two (and plenty of others), the rest of the music generally gets overlooked. “Meh, I’ve heard that one,” you think. “Why should I go hear SooBeen Lee play it with Oregon Symphony on the 30th?”

Well, hypothetical grumpy (and surprisingly well-informed) reader: because there’s a lot more to it than that One Infamous Bit. Because Vivaldi may have–according to an apocryphal Stravinsky quip–“composed the same violin concerto five hundred times,” but this was The One. Or rather the four, and “Spring” is the least of them. What you’re really there for is the haunting, delicate, deathless wastes of the “Winter” movement. “Summer” and “Autumn” are also excellent. So is “Spring,” for that matter, and if you can’t enjoy that in The Schnitz in the middle of an ice storm, when can you?

Sheesh, dear reader, just stay home and listen to Iona Brown and Neville Marriner, then; see if we care.

Pink Martini does stream its holiday concert–in fact, for three years now they’ve made a point of it. This year’s was filmed just last Friday at SF Jazz, featuring the usual Lauderdale Lackeys plus favorite PM vocalists China Forbes, Jimmie Herrod, and Edna Vazquez. Get your stream on here.

If you’re lucky enough to live within creeping distance of Downtown Portland, you can hit The Schnitz on New Year’s Eve (or hide out after the Vivaldi concert, Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler style). Pink Martini comes home and joins forces with PYP for a 7 p.m. concert followed by a late show at 10:30 to ring in the New Year. More info and tickets here.

That’s all for now, folks! We’ll return next week to listen back and read over the year’s music and music stories. For now–be safe, and be merry!

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at

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