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MusicWatch Monthly: Christmas versus Christmas

In which we discuss holiday traditions new and old.


Norman Rockwell, "Concert Trio," 1931.
Norman Rockwell, “Concert Trio,” 1931.

This may sound a bit esoteric, but I’ve recently thought there to be two Christmases, which happen to occur on the same day: one is the Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; the other is a secular holiday of gift-giving, shopping and other distinctly American traditions. Both of these also draw upon various winter solstice celebrations from around Europe, including Rome’s Sol Invictus celebration and Northern Europe’s Yule. 

Portland has its fair amount of Christmas traditions, as well: the Tree Lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square, Zoo Lights, Peacock Lane; and other lighting events at PIR, The Grotto, and along the Willamette. As a child my family liked to witness what my younger sister dubbed “Merry Pukemas,” a neighborhood arms race to see who could have the highest electric bill for the month by stuffing their lawn with as many animatronic reindeer and other gaudy decorations as possible. 

There is so much to be categorized under “Christmas music,” including Latin masses, old Hymns, secular songs drawing from rock, jazz, pop and R&B, and whatever you want to call Paul McCartney’s hilariously awful “Wonderful Christmastime.” There are even a fair amount of Christmas-themed Hip-Hop songs.

Oregon has a wide showing of all these sub-genres of music for the holiday season, beginning with the choral world. 

Choral music

Winter is one of the key seasons for choral music; Daryl Browne will have more to say on this soon in ChoralWatch, and you can read her recent spotlight on Maybelle Community Singers (and their free concert this weekend) right here.

Also this weekend (the 3rd and 4th), the Portland Symphonic Choir puts on its annual winter show, Wintersong. On the 4th and again on the busy 10th-11th weekend, the Oregon Repertory Singers bring us Glory of Christmas 2022, with an impressive program of carols, Franz Beibl’s Ave Maria, plus arrangements and a world premiere from Naomi LaViolette, who in addition to her solo work writes beautiful choral music.

The weekend of the 9th-11th, Portland Baroque Orchestra and Cappella Romana put on one of the classic holiday pieces, Handel’s massive Messiah, conducted by Gabriel Crouch.


Seattle Opera Pagliacci

Nearly every night of the Festival of Lights at The Grotto in Northwest Portland features many of the city’s great choral ensembles, from high school and college choirs to semi-professional groups like Portland Nordic Chorus (the 15th at 7 pm) In Medio (on the 21st at 8 p.m.). Incidentally, the Nordic Chorus is also going on this weekend at the Nordia House from 7-9 p.m. on Saturday

Tuba or not tuba

December 11 brings the thirtieth anniversary of the silly and fun Tuba Christmas, a gathering of tuba and euphonium players of all ages from around the city. This one is in the afternoon, which gives plenty of time to catch one of those many other shows happening that evening. One of which is the Portland Cello Project’s winter concert at Revolution Hall, whose syncretic repertoire is perfect for the holiday-variety-hour theme. 

The Oregon Symphony ends the year with a wide selection of holiday concerts. Some are annual mainstays, like Gospel Christmas (on the 10th and 11th), Mariachi Christmas on the 20th, and Holiday Brass on the 21st. There is also the Film-in-Concert performances of Elf, one of the newest movies in the Christmas movie canon, conducted by the composer himself–John Debney. Plus, at the end of the month on the 30th, the symphony under the baton of Deanna Tham performs Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Bizet/Schedrin’s Carmen suite. 

The other symphonies in town have their own holiday shows to catch. The Portland Columbia Symphony celebrates the solstice with “A Very Brassy Holiday,” and the Vancouver Symphony’s Holiday Pops concert is on that busy weekend of the 10th and 11th. 

If you want a reprieve from the Christmas shows, there is the Chamber Music NorthWest show featuring baritone Will Liverman, accompanied by CMNW Artistic Director Gloria Chien. The show is Monday the 12th at 7:30 p.m. in Lincoln Performance Hall. Will Liverman played the older Charles in Terence Blanchard’s opera Fire Shut Up in My Bonesa role for which he was praised–and will return for a spot in Anthony Davis’ upcoming opera on Malcolm X, also at the Met. (And of course, we have to praise the Met for putting on their second ever opera by a Black composer when the first was only a few years ago.) The repertoire for the CMNW show features Liverman’s own arrangements of spirituals alongside works from Loewe, Price, Ravel and Vaughn Williams.

Another great show this month to get away from what Zappa bemoaned as “Christmas Shit” in his great autobiography are the two Takács Quartet shows next Monday and Tuesday. The first night is more “classical,” with quartets by Haydn and Beethoven; the second is more “modern” with Dvořák, Bartók and Britten. 

And there are always the near-obligatory performances of The Nutcracker by the Oregon Ballet Theater happening throughout the month, running from next weekend through to a Christmas Eve matinee. I’m sure I don’t have to give the pitch for The Nutcracker at this point–Tchiakovsky did the music, Ballanchine did the choreography–and the ballet is still charming and fun (in spite of some of the problematic orientalism). 


Seattle Opera Pagliacci

While these Oregon Ballet Theater performances are at the Keller as always, the confusingly-similarly-named Oregon International Ballet Academy performs its Nutcracker at the Reser Center for the all-too busy weekend of the 10th and 11th. 

For another continuing concert series leading up to Christmas Day–almost an advent calendar of concerts–pianist Michael Allen Harrison and vocalist Julianne Johnson team up for the Christmas at the Old Church series. These concerts run from the eleventh through to Christmas Eve, with plenty of opportunities to see them between all the other things going on during the holiday season.  

New Year’s

After Christmas and before New Year’s Eve the shows slow down significantly. Because musicians are probably taking a break as well; heading to wherever they call home for the week, or just taking some much-needed rest in the darkest days of the year. But thankfully there are also numerous New Year’s Eve celebrations, allowing people to cross over into 2023 however they see fit. There are some old mainstays like the Pink Martini celebration at the Schnitz.

A NYE show for the hip-hop-heads is Digable Planets, who play at the Crystal Ballroom that night alongside local “Fem-Cee” Karma Rivera. Digable Planets are big names in the sub-genre confusingly titled jazz rap, which gained prominence in the early nineties as a mellower alternative to the mainstream hardcore and gangsta rap.

For those in a more dancy mood, check out the New Year’s set by DJ Anjali the Incredible Kid at the Wonder Ballroom for a cross-cultural dance party–with a guest performance by psychedelic cumbia group Orquestra Pacifico Tropical. If you need something more aggressive, the Seattle punk group Murder City Devils have you covered at Revolution Hall. For those who prefer sitting, the funky Polyrhythmics make their way down from Seattle for a NYE show at the Aladdin Theater.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at


4 Responses

  1. And lastly, The Midwinter Revels which features music of Andalusian Spain and of course Revels traditions — true its not strictly speaking a music concert but between choral music, audience participatory songs, and the music of Seffarine there should be enough to delight.

  2. Thanks for the additions, I was focusing on instrumental music since Daryl Browne now has a list specifically for choral music out. I’m glad to have people who are remembering things I overlooked or neglected to mention.

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