Like the annual Christmas shopping frenzy, the holiday concert season begins the day after Thanksgiving. I have scant interest in hearing the same hymns and Christmas songs I sang as a teenager, so here are four performances that thwart, subvert, or remix yuletide cheer.
Misconstrued as fun for the whole family, Nutcracker (Nov 27–Dec 30, McCaw Hall, $26–$123, see www.pnb.org for details) reminds the attentive viewer through young Clara's dreams and the sublimating pedophiliac Drosselmeier that Christmas remains a centripetal locus of familial abandonment and traumatic maturation. Lurid sets by Maurice Sendak, sumptuous costumes, and courtly choreography camouflage everything for the kiddies. The music—despite annually wallpapering ads for cars (this year it's Hyundai), diamond rings, and one-day sales—remains a model of elegance and charm.
I also look forward to the Affinity Chamber Players (Sat Dec 5, Chapel Performance Space, 8 pm, $5–$15 sliding-scale donation), who unveil new compositions by Neil Thornock, Arthur Gottschalk, and Christopher Gainey, along with George Crumb's classic Eleven Echoes of Autumn. Teeming with carefully wrought textures—shivering flute whistles, prepared piano, and high, skyward harmonics—the epigrammatic Echoes remains one of the few pieces to subsume experimental "extended techniques" to melodies that are at once long-limbed and luscious.
Fans of the avant should also investigate (or plan to lip-synch) the sing-along session of Handel's Messiah (Sat Dec 26, University Unitarian Church, 6556 35th Ave NE, 800-838-3006, 7 pm, $10–$15), mainly because singers and musicians with disparate abilities rarely share the stage. Alert ears will savor timbres arising from minute (and sometimes gaping) discrepancies in pitch, rhythm, and enunciation. At least good singers, talented undergrads, wannabes, and folks like me whose voices have weakened and shriveled can all bellow "Hallelujah!" at the same time. Regardless of the weather, this perennially sells out, so dust off your vocal score (Watkins Shaw/Novello is preferred) and plan ahead.
That same night, Earshot Jazz presents its annual concert of Duke Ellington's sacred music (Sat Dec 26, Town Hall, 7:30 pm, $24/$28). Near the end of his life, Ellington composed the three Sacred Concerts to honor God through jazz. Unlike forward-looking works from the same period—notably the Far East Suite with its glowering dissonance heard in the "Tourist Point of View" section—the Concerts remix Ellington's roots in the blues, gospel, jazz, and dance. Here, the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra compiles music from all three Sacred Concerts and teams up with the Northwest Chamber Chorus and singer Everett Greene. Evoking the late Billy Eckstine with cavernous and at times operatic vowels, Greene brocades his eminently rich baritone with a strutting, bluesy swagger.