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On Christmas Day, 1815, a sturdy chorus of a hundred singers gave the first American performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” It was only selections of the great oratorio. The first complete performance would come from the same group, exactly three years later, on Christmas in 1818.
The performers? The Handel & Haydn Society, America’s oldest performing arts organization, now celebrating its birthday 200 years later. In case you think H&H took some time to develop an audience, think again: About a thousand people heard that first “Messiah” at King’s Chapel in Boston.
H&H has had it share of changes over the decades. Now known exclusively as a period orchestra and chorus, a transition that began gradually in the middle of the last century, H&H has spent time as a new music group, commissioning works by composers like Amy Beach and Randall Thompson. H&H also dabbled in jazz as well, collaborating with Dave Brubeck and Keith Jarrett.
But “Messiah” has been a given. There were some early years when H&H did not perform the oratorio, but since 1854, when the holidays come around, so does “Messiah.” This season, artistic director Harry Christophers leads his ensemble and chorus with soloists Joélle Harvey, Tim Mead, Allan Clayton and Brindley Sherratt in performances at Symphony Hall Nov. 28–30.
Boston Baroque can make its own claim to firsts, as it truly was this country’s first orchestra dedicated to historically informed performances of early music. Founded more than four decades ago by conductor Martin Pearlman and a group of young conservatory grads, Boston Baroque is still here with Pearlman as the music director.
Boston Baroque sings its own “Messiah” each year in the intimate confines of Jordan Hall. This year’s performances are Dec. 12 and 13, and Pearlman has his own quartet of outstanding soloists: Sherezade Panthaki, Ann McMahon Quintero, William Burden and Dashon Burton. Boston Baroque also has a splendid New Year’s concert, both on the eve and day. This season baritone Andrew Garland takes on Cimarosa’s comic “Il Maestro di Cappella,” then soprano Sara Heaton joins in for arias and duets by Mozart.
Santa is busy for one night, but nobody works harder during December than Keith Lockhart. The Boston Pops opens its holiday season on Dec. 3, and Lockhart leads the gang at Symphony Hall through 41 performances before he puts his holiday baton down on New Year’s Eve.
A special orchestral accompaniment to the movie “Home Alone” (Dec. 26 and 27) highlights the run. Lockhart conducts the orchestra in John Williams’ frantic and fun-filled score. For those who have missed previous accompaniments to “West Side Story” (BSO) and “Wizard of Oz” (the Pops) it’s a tour-de-force of timing and musicianship to see a live ensemble accompany the original film.
For those with a scholarly bent, Celebrity Series regular Rob Kapilow investigates Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” Dec. 5 at Jordan Hall, part of his ongoing What Makes It Great? series. Voices Boston (the renamed PALS Children’s Chorus) joins Kapilow for this choral masterpiece.
The Boston area is blessed with great singers, and many groups put them to good use this time of year. From Dec. 18-20, Blue Heron, specialists in Renaissance vocal music, sings 15th century French sacred settings at First Church in Cambridge under director Scott Metcalfe. Back Bay Chorale performs its holiday concert, with selections from Saint-Saens’ “Oratorio de Noël,” and the Hallelujah chorus from “Messiah” tossed in, at Emmanuel Church Dec. 13.
Jamie Kirsch directs his Chorus pro Musica in a new work by James Kallembach, along with other seasonal selections, Dec. 19 at Old South Church. Musicians of Old Post Road perform “Stille Nacht,” works from a classical German Christmas, Dec. 6 at Emmanuel Church, with soprano Lianne Coble joining the ensemble.
Outside of Boston, narrator Joyce Kulhawik brings “Paddington Bear’s First Concert” to life on Dec. 7 with the Concord Symphony in the Center for the Performing Arts. Farther south, the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, under David MacKenzie, presents "Messiah" Part 1 with a quartet of terrific soloists on Nov. 30 at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford. The performance will include the "Hallelujah" chorus and the "Amen," from “Messiah,” as well as a Bach cantata.
And if you happen to be in Cape Cod, the Cape Cod Symphony, with Jung-Ho Pak as conductor, sings six performances of its holiday pops concerts, with guest star Siobhan Magnus of “American Idol” notoriety, Dec. 5 through 7 at the Barnstable Performing Arts Center.
Keith Powers, former music critic at the Boston Herald, now freelances for a number of newspapers and magazines. Follow him on Twitter @PowersKeith.
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