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Christmas concerts coming up; Louise Erdrich at One Book, One Minnesota

ALSO: Arab Film Festival Collab; the Bad Plus streaming; French music from Louis XIV and XV eras; and more.

Dr. Anton Armstrong conducting the Massed Choirs and St. Olaf Orchestra during the 2019 Christmas Festival.
Dr. Anton Armstrong conducting the Massed Choirs and St. Olaf Orchestra during the 2019 Christmas Festival.
Courtesy of St. Olaf College

And suddenly it’s December. Hard to believe almost nine months have passed since the first round of COVID closings. That it will soon be 2021. That Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is coming.

Attending Christmas concerts in person won’t be possible this year. But starting this weekend, many concerts will come to us on our teevees and radios and devices. We can watch and listen as choirs, orchestras and ensembles share the traditional message of hope and joy. We can experience concerts and events that are new to us, and some we have always wanted to attend but never quite managed. And we can do it all in sweatpants and pajamas.

Here’s a handful of recommendations, to be followed by more in the days ahead.

Sunday (Dec. 6) at 3:30 p.m.: Christmas from St. Olaf: “All Earth Is Hopeful.” Featuring more than 500 student musicians, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival is always a hot ticket, bringing thousands of visitors to the Northfield college campus. This year’s virtual concert will feature music from recent festival programs plus selections from festivals not seen in many years, performed by five choirs and the St. Olaf Orchestra.

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In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the concert “also represents a recognition of the musical contributions of Black and brown people from the U.S. and abroad.” The theme, “All Earth is Hopeful,” was inspired by a phrase from a Latin American carol, “Toda la Tierra.”

The concert will remain available on demand after the premiere. Stream it here. Free, with no registration required.

Sunday (Dec. 6) at 4 p.m.: VocalEssence: “Welcome Christmas.” VocalEssence went all-out for its big Christmas concert, partnering with Twin Cities PBS (TPT) to record it – some live and in person at Plymouth Congregational Church, with decorations and masked, distanced singers, and some virtual, with remote singers. Along with COVID protocols, tricky post-production was involved, including, for example, when VocalEssence founder and artistic director Philip Brunelle decided he wanted one particular group from the Ensemble Singers to sing “five gold rings” whenever it came up in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” During a pandemic!

VocalEssence recording "Welcome Christmas" at Plymouth Congregational Church.
Screen shot
VocalEssence recording "Welcome Christmas" at Plymouth Congregational Church.
The concert will remain available on demand after the premiere. FMI including concert program and tickets ($15 for this concert only, $49 for a VocalEssence 2020-21 subscription). With a subscription, you can watch this concert, all future concerts and all past concerts, including last weekend’s “Imagine” featuring the VocalEssence Singers of This Age youth choir.

Starts Friday, Dec. 11, at 7:30 p.m.: Christmas with Cantus: “Lessons and Carols for Our Time.” The stellar men’s vocal ensemble puts its own spin on the holiday tradition of nine lessons and carols, made famous by the choir of King’s College in Cambridge. Instead of one long concert, they’ve split it into two shorter ones, the first available from Friday-Sunday, Dec. 11 through 13, and the second from Friday-Sunday, Dec. 18-20. Enjoy both or pick one; each works as a stand-alone. Each is a blend of music and poetry.

Starting Friday, Dec. 11, at 7:30 p.m.: Christmas with Cantus: “Lessons and Carols for Our Time.”
Courtesy of Cantus
Starting Friday, Dec. 11, at 7:30 p.m.: Christmas with Cantus: “Lessons and Carols for Our Time.”
Carols include classics (“Silent Night”), modern works by Abbie Betinis, Jocelyn Hagen and Saunder Choi, and Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” a Cantus tradition. FMI and tickets (pay-what-you-can, starting at $5).

Recorded live at the Ordway Concert Hall, this concludes Cantus’ original Hometown Series, planned before anyone knew COVID would be with us for so long. On Dec. 1, Cantus announced they would delay their return to in-person concerts at least through April.

P.S. on King’s College: “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” will be performed this year to an empty chapel and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 15:00 GMT, or 9 a.m. Christmas Eve day.

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Saturday, Dec. 19, at 6 p.m. C.S.T.: Jazz at Lincoln Center: Big Band Holidays. Last year we heard this swinging ensemble, led by Wynton Marsalis, live at Orchestra Hall. It has always been a treat to hear them play there, and we hope they can return before too long.

Their holiday program is consistently excellent, with songs and carols arranged by members of the orchestra (all accomplished composers) and at least one special guest. This year there will be several guests including Catherine Russell, Kurt Elling, Rubén Blades, Ashley Pezzotti, and more TBA. And everyone will have a front-row seat. FMI and tickets ($25). The concert will remain available on demand through Dec. 26.

The picks

We now return you to the not-Christmas-concerts part of our program.

A still from “You Will Die at Twenty,” part of the Arab Film Fest Collab.
A still from “You Will Die at Twenty,” part of the Arab Film Fest Collab.
Now through Sunday, Dec. 13: Mizna et al.: Arab Film Fest Collab. Mizna, our local Arab arts organization and publisher of the only Arab American literature and art journal in the country, has partnered with the Arab American National Museum (AANM), the Arab Film and Media Institute (AFMI), and ArteEast on a collectively produced virtual film festival screening indie Arab cinema for audiences across the U.S. The lineup includes nine narrative films, 10 documentaries and eight shorts programs. An all-access festival pass ($90) gets you into all the films, talkbacks, panel discussions, the audience awards and a workshop on constructing personal narratives. Individual tickets are $10 or pay-what-you-can. FMI.

Tonight (Friday, Dec. 4)., at 7 p.m. C.S.T.: The Bad Plus: From Big Ears Part 2. In September, Reid Anderson, Orrin Evans and Dave King played two shows at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. The first one streamed in early October. The second, described as “looser and deeper,” will stream tonight. It will also be available on demand for 48 hours after, if you want to catch it again or can’t watch at the scheduled time. Presented by the Big Ears Festival. FMI and tickets ($18). If you’re a fan, you should catch this group whenever you can. The Bad Plus played the Dakota every Christmas for 20 years, but that won’t happen in 2020. Unless they come here and the Dakota streams them from its stage?

Saturday, Dec. 5, at 11 a.m.: Lyra Baroque: French Dreams & Games. French music from the time of Louis XIV and XV, performed on violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The program includes Antoine Dornel’s “Illème Suitte,” Marin Marais’ “Trois pour coucher le Roy” and John-Marie Leclair’s “Récréation de Musique.” With Miriam Scholz-Carlson, Marc Levine, Julie Elhard and Paul Boehnke. FMI and tickets ($15/5 students). Tune in early for pre-concert talks, stay after for post-concert chats.

Sunday, Dec. 6, and Saturday, Dec. 12, at 6 p.m. C.S.T.: National Jazz Museum in Harlem: Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres. Co-founded by Jen Shyu (who played a searingly memorable set at Icehouse in 2018) and Sara Serpa, M³ is a revolutionary model of mentorship, a think tank of new ways to connect, collaborate, support, create and empower womxn musicians worldwide. Created in March 2020, launched in June at the height of the pandemic, it will present six world premieres over two evenings. If you’re interested in new music by womxn including BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+ and musicians of all abilities across generations, don’t miss this. And it’s free. FMI and reservations.

Louise Erdrich
Friends of the St. Paul Public Library
Louise Erdrich
Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m.: The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library: One Book, One Minnesota: Louise Erdrich: “The Plague of Doves.” Have you been reading Erdrich’s book? Join a statewide discussion with her about it as the third chapter of the Friends’ statewide book club comes to a close. Previous titles in this program – which makes the books available to read online for free – have include Kate DiCamillo’s “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” edited by Sun Yung Shin. What’s next, Friends? Register here for the webinar.