‘Tis The Season: A Roundup Of The Holidays’ Best Choral (And Vocal) Music

Posted on December 02, 2014, 9:07 pm
13 mins


As the festive season, approaches Seattle music lovers have a wealth of choices of fine live choral music events in celebration of this ‘most wonderful time of the year.’ Substitute the elevator music and frenzied rush of the malls for the real thing with the powerful combination of high-quality music in the wonderful acoustics and visually striking setting of Seattle’s most beautiful concert halls, chapels, shrines and cathedrals.

The long-running Compline services at St. Mark’s Cathedral in north Capitol Hill are a guaranteed effective escape from the consumerism and madness of the Christmas season. Young and old alike have frequented these Sunday evening events for the past sixty years in the visually striking St. Mark’s Cathedral, darkened for these events. The sounds of these chants—most of which are several centuries old—link the listeners with centuries of history and have a grounding, centering effect regardless of religious belief. It is no wonder that this weekly event has garnered this much popularity, with an average of 500 people in attendance on a weekly basis.

German-English composer Georg Friedrich Handel’s Messiah has become synonymous with the festive season around the world, and several Seattle choirs regular perform it during this time. Two quality choices for the Messiah are renditions by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Symphony Chorale at Benaroya Hall and the Seattle Chamber Singers at First Free Methodist Church. The immediate thrill of the instantly recognizable and dramatic “Hallelujah! Chorus” (for which people traditionally rise up from their seats) is certainly part of the appeal, but oratorio as a genre in general is also immensely enjoyable, with its easy-to-follow format of spoken word (recitative), poetic elaboration (aria) and response by the community, sung by the choir (chorale).

Another well-known, though less-performed baroque oratorio is J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Pacific MusicWorks will present selections from the Christmas Oratorio in collaboration with Early Music Vancouver in the wonderful acoustics of St. James Cathedral. Both of these groups have gained international recognition for their sensitivity to the performance practice of early music, and audiences can expect a time warp to the soundscape of the elaborate baroque era.

Another traditional favorite, in every sense of the word is the Northwest Boychoir’s rendition of the “Festival of Lessons and Carols.” This English tradition has enjoyed immense popularity internationally since its inception in 1880. The most well-known of these is that by the King’s College Choir at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, which is broadcast live to millions of listeners around the globe annually. (The first broadcast thereof in the United States constituted the first live trans-continental broadcast of this type in history). The local Northwest Boychoir have performed the “Festival of Lessons and Carols”, after the Cambridge model, for years, and it is truly at the top of the Seattle holiday concerts list. The well-blended (the clichéd word “angelic” comes to mind) young adolescent voices of the boy choir, accompanied, for its closing concerts, by symphony orchestra, present seasonal music at its finest. The sing-along opportunities alone, in ambient spaces around Seattle and surrounds, make this a not-to-be-missed event for those festive spirit enthusiasts.

Seattle Pro Musica celebrates all things French this festive season with their concert titled “Noel: French Christmas.” This community group has performed all over the United States and often elicits glowing reviews from critics. The concert will feature works by two twentieth-century French composers, Francis Poulenc and Pierre Villette, as well as madrigals and carols of medieval and Renaissance France.  Another splendid community group, Opus 7winner of the 2013 American Prize for Community Choral Excellence) will feature music by female composers in their concert “Shining Rose of Heaven.”

Seattle conductor/composer Karen Thomas.  Picture by Cassie Redstone

Seattle conductor/composer Karen Thomas.     Picture by Cassie Redstone

The works of Seattle Pro Musica conductor Karen Thomas are a clear favorite this season. Thomas is an accomplished choral composer whose works have been performed around the United States and internationally. The Medieval Women’s Choir’s concert, titled “Fountain of Life” will feature a new commission from this celebrated composer as well as works by the remarkable mystic Hildegard van Bingen. Thomas’ work will also be featured in the form of a new commission by the Northwest Girlchoir in a “Winter Wonder” concert celebrating repertoire by Pacific Northwest as well as Norwegian, Finnish and Latvian composers. The Seattle Girls Choir will present their annual holiday concert the following week at Town Hall, titled “A Gift of Song.”

For a more ironic spin on festive cheer, consider “The Saddest Holiday Concert Ever!” Countertenor Augustine Mercante, accompanied by John Lenti on the theorbo (an early 14-stringed version of the lute) and Aaron Grad on the electric theorbo, guide audiences through a selection of melancholy music, from baroque masterpieces by Handel and Merula and early Americana tunes to more recent classics by Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Queen of Weep, Joni Mitchell.

Choral Arts, winner of the American Prize in Music, have wowed audiences with their programs of uniquely uninterrupted music, as well as seldom-heard versions of well-known choral works (such as their 2014 performance of the Brahms Requiem with seldom-heard piano accompaniment). “Christmas with Choral Arts” is an hour-long uninterrupted concert featuring carols and Christmas-themed choral works, interlinked by guitar interludes. The event promises “an oasis of calm beauty amidst the bustling holiday season” in the warm acoustics of Trinity Parish and St. Joseph Parish.

A favorite in the University District, the University of Washington’s Carolfest has packed Meany Hall year after year. Around 500 singers from six of the university’s choral ensembles join forces in this yearly tradition as they perform music from around the world.

Last, and definitely not least, the larger-than-life Seattle Men’s Chorus will be delighting audiences with seven performances of their tongue-in-cheek holiday concert “Our Gay Apparel.” The traditional carol sing-along has been an audience favorite and this year will feature two outreach performances in Everett and Tacoma. Currently in its thirty-fifth season, the Men’s Chorus has become a Seattle institution, and holds the honor of largest gay men’s chorus in the world (their holiday concert personnel listing lists well over 500 members).

More information on dates, venues and ticketing information on these concerts can be found below.

Choral Arts presents Christmas with Choral Arts

Medieval Women’s Choir presents Fountain of Life

When:  Saturday, December 20, 8 PM

Where:  St. James Cathedral (804 9th Ave)

Tickets:  Available online at www.brownpapertickets.com

Northwest Boychoir presents A Festival of Lessons and Carols

When and Where:  

Friday December 12, 7:30 PM – Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church (7500 Greenwood Ave N)

Saturday, December 13, 7:30 PM – Trinity Lutheran Church (6215 196th Street SW)

Sunday, December 14, 7 PM – St. Alphonsus Church (5816 15th Ave NW)

Friday, December 19, 7:30 PM – Holy Rosary Church (4210 SW Genesee Street)

Saturday, December 20, 7:30 PM – St. Mark’s Cathedral (1245 10th Ave E)

Sunday, December 21, 6 PM – St. Mark’s Cathedral (1245 10th Ave E)

Monday, December 22, 7:30 PM – St. Mark’s Cathedral (1245 10th Ave E)

Tuesday, December 23, 7:30 PM – Benaroya Hall (200 University Street)

Tickets:  Available online at www.nwchoirs.org

(Benaroya Hall concert tickets only available at Benaroya Hall Box Office)

Northwest Girlchoir presents Winter Wonder

When:  Friday, December 5, 7:30 PM

Where:  Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church (7500 Greenwood Ave N)

Tickets:  Available online at www.winterwonder.bpt.me

Opus 7 presents Shining Rose of Heaven

When:  Saturday, December 13, 8 PM

Where:  St. James Cathedral (804 Ninth Ave)

Admission:  Available online at www.brownpapertickets.com.  Suggested donation $18.00 in advance, $20 at the door for adults; students and seniors pay as able.

Pacific MusicWorks presents Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

When:  Wednesday, December 17, 7:30 PM (Mercer Island); Friday, December 19, 8 PM (Seattle)

Where:  Emmanuel Episcopal Church (Mercer Island) (4400 86th Ave);  St. James Cathedral (804 9th Ave)

Tickets:  Available online from www.brownpapertickets.com

The Saddest Holiday Concert Ever!

When:  Sunday, December 7

Where:  Queen Anne Christian Church (1316 3rd Ave W)

Tickets:  Available online at www.aarongrad.com

Seattle Chamber Singers presents Handel’s Messiah

When:  Sunday, December 21, 3 PM

Where:  First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)

Tickets:  Available online at www.osscs.org

Seattle Girls Choir presents A Gift of Song

When:  December 13, 1:30 PM

Where:  Town Hall (1119 8th Ave)

Tickets:  Available online at www.brownpapertickets.com

Seattle Men’s Chorus presents Our Gay Apparel

When and Where:  

Thursday, December 4, 8 PM – Pantages Theater, Tacoma (901 Broadway)

Friday, December 12, 8 PM – Benaroya Hall (200 University St.)

Sunday, December 14, 2 PM – Benaroya Hall (200 University St.)

Saturday, December 20, 8 PM – Everett Civic Auditorium (2415 Colby)

Sunday, December 21, 7:30 PM – Benaroya Hall (200 University St.)

Monday, December 22, 7:30 PM – Benaroya Hall (200 University St.)

Tickets:  Available online at www.tickets.flyinghouse.org

Seattle ProMusica presents Noel: French Christmas

When and Where:  

Saturday, December 6, 7:30 PM – First Baptist Church (1111 Harvard Ave)

Saturday, December 13, 3 PM & 7:30 PM – Chapel at Bastyr University (14500 Juanita Drive NE)

(Pre-concert lectures one hour prior to performance)

Tickets:  Available online at www.brownpapertickets.com

Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Symphony Chorale presents Handel’s Messiah

When: Friday, December 19, 8 PM; Saturday, December 20, 1PM; 8 PM; Sunday, December 21, 2 PM.

Where: Benaroya Hall (200 University St.)

Tickets: Available online at www.seattlesymphony.org

St. Mark’s Cathedral Compline Services

When:  Sundays, 9:30 PM

Where:  St. Mark’s Cathedral ((1245 10th Ave E)

Admission:  Free

University of Washington presents Carolfest

When: Wednesday, December 3, 7:30 PM

Where: Meany Hall (4140 George Washington Ln NE)

Tickets: $15 ($10 students/seniors). Available at doors and online at www.artsuw.org



Johann Van Niekerk is a writer, conductor and collaborative artist based in Seattle, WA. He holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Washington where his research focused on the role that music has played throughout history in effecting social change. Van Niekerk covers performing arts events in and around Seattle.