My favorite music of the season is inspired, beautiful and intimate. Sure, I enjoy the hoopla of a gigantic “Deck the Halls” for 300 voices, full orchestra and dancing reindeer. But I also welcome the chance to slow down, savor and appreciate. There’s nothing like a choral concert sung a cappella in candlelight to make you feel refreshed.
There’s lots of great music on tap this weekend and next. So, wrap those gifts, bake those cookies, race to that choir practice – but don’t forget to sit back and listen. Here are a few of my favorite things.
O Holy Night (Friday, Dec. 12): Lyric tenor Marco Panuccio’s annual “O Holy Night” is an uplifting evening of sacred arias and traditional hymns in St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, Downtown. Despite the vast spaces of the cathedral, the mood is intimate, and Panuccio’s warm, heartfelt delivery always leaves you with a glowing feeling inside. This is the fifth year of the Emmy-nominated concert, and Panuccio says that most of his program is new. He’ll perform music from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, three new settings of “Ave Maria,” and French, Italian and Austrian carols. This year’s concert includes Matthew Umphreys, pianist, and the O Holy Night Orchestra, Jesse Leong conducting. The concert is at 8 p.m., Dec. 12, Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral, 325 West Eighth Street, Downtown. Tickets: $25; $15 students, at cincinnati.brownpapertickets.com, or call 1-800-838-3006 (option 1).
Music by candlelight (Dec. 13, 14): “A Candelit Christmas” is an annual tradition of the Vocal Arts Ensemble. Lights dim, candles flicker, and the audience is surrounded by voices intoning warmly. The holiday program, which blends ancient and new, is sung a cappella by this superb professional chorus. This year, the singers are joined by Cincinnati Collaborative Ringing Project. Assistant conductor Stephanie Nash leads the singers in what promises to be an unforgettable holiday experience. Concerts are 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13, St. Boniface Church, 1750 Chase Ave., Northside and 5 p.m. Dec. 14, St. Francis de Sales, Church, East Walnut Hills. Tickets: $20-$25. 513-381-3300, vaecinci.org.
New twists on Handel’s “Messiah” (Dec. 13, 14, 21): I try to take in at least one performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” one of the greatest oratorios ever written. When it premiered in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742, it was so popular that women were instructed not to wear hoop skirts to allow for more listeners. It continues to inspire. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the May Festival Chorus will perform the complete “Messiah,” led by James Bagwell, with a cast of celebrated soloists. The entire work consists of Part I (The Advent of the Messiah), which features the popular “Glory to God” chorus, Part II (The Passion of Christ) and Part III with its familiar “Hallelujah Chorus.” Bagwell’s ascending career includes music director of the Collegiate Chorale, founded by the legendary Robert Shaw in New York; he’s known locally for his work with the May Festival Youth Chorus. The concert is 2 p.m. Dec. 21 in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300, cincinnatisymphony.org.
Often just Part I, the “Christmas” portion, is presented. For a different twist, the Cincinnati Boychoir and Collegium Cincinnati will perform Handel’s “Messiah: Part the First,” with a chorus of boys and men, “the way that Handel intended it.” Christopher Eanes conducts. Concerts are at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13 and 3 p.m. Dec. 14, Christ Church Cathedral, Downtown. Tickets: $15; $10 students and seniors, at the Aronoff Center Box Office, 513-621-2787, cincinnatiarts.org.
And this year, I’m intrigued by an adaptation called “The Spiritual Messiah,” based on Handel’s oratorio, but refashioned by John Wesley Wright with African-American spirituals and gospel-style works. The St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church Choir will present 15 pieces from the oratorio with soloists Wright, a tenor and CCM graduate, mezzo-soprano Cherry Duke and baritone Michael Preacely. It is the final program of retiring music minister Catherine Roma and Rachel Kramer, associate director of music. The music service is 11 a.m. Dec. 14, St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church in Clifton. Free. Information: 513-961-1938 or stjohnsuu.org.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” (Dec. 19, 21, 22): This one-act chamber opera is a holiday tradition to treasure. This is the third year of the production by the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and Madcap Puppets in Gallagher Student Center Theater at Xavier University. It’s a magical show, with giant puppets, a singing cast and Gian Carlo Menotti’s lyrical score. The story is placed in present-day Cincinnati, with a backdrop of the Cincinnati skyline.
The first opera written for American television, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” premiered on NBC-TV Christmas Eve, 1951. It tells the tale of a crippled shepherd boy, his poor widowed mother, and the three Magi on their way to Bethlehem with gifts to the Christ Child. A Christmas miracle occurs, and Amahl is healed. Eric Riedel, 11, a Cincinnati Boychoir member, sings the role of Amahl. Kathryn Leemhuis performs as his Mother. The three Magi are Brad Raymond, Errik Hood and Thomas Dreeze. Simon Barrad is the Page. Tom Merrill, professor of music at Xavier, will conduct the cast, orchestra and Xavier Edgecliff Vocal Ensemble. Irina Niculescu of Madcap returns as stage director. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19, 21 and 22. Tickets: Adults: $25; Students: $10. 513-723-1182 or ccocincinnati.org.
In churches and cathedrals (Dec. 14): There is something about hearing music in these grand spaces that is timeless, mystical and offers a chance for reflection. In Old St. Mary’s Church in Over-the-Rhine, Musica Sacra founding music director Helmut Roehrig will lead the Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra in a program including Schütz’s “Magnificat and Hodie Christus Natus Est,” Hans Leo Hassler’s “Dixit Maria & Verbo Carum Factus Est,” Andreas Hammerschmidt’s “Machet die Tore weit” and Peter Cornelius’ “The Three Kings.” The concert is at 3 p.m., Dec. 14. Free, donations accepted. 513-721-2988; http://www.musica-sacra.org.