28 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/52

2 Songs (Spring & Winter; The Owl & the Cuckoo)

When daisies pied and violets blue
     And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
     Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
     And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
     And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When icicles hang by the wall,
     And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
     And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
     And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
     And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

William Shakespeare, from Love's Labor's Lost

Love's Labor's Lost, a play in which the characters are constantly trapping themselves in self-created theatrical tableaux, suitably ends with a pair of songs that frame Nature itself into matched picturesque vignettes. (One reason I've always loved these songs is that they remind me of the illustrations of the different months in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.)

It's might be useful to review the vocabulary first: in the Spring song, pied means having two or more different colors (that is, piebald); a lady-smock is a flower (Cardamine pratensis) also known as cuckooflower; the cuckoo-buds that flower in the next line, however, are now commonly known as crowfoot (Ranunculus bulbosus) though some commentators think they are a related flower, the bright yellow buttercup; in the second stanza, turtles refers, as it usually does in this period of English literature, to turtle-doves, famous as symbols of fidelity in love, which may be why they tread, that is, mate, as do the rooks and daws, which are types of crow.

In the Winter song: nail here means fingernail; to keel a pot means to stir or skim it, generally with the purpose of cooling it down; a saw is an old wise saying, like a proverb but with a hint that it's bromidic rather than enlightening; and the hissing crabs are small, sour crabapples.

The first song is not going to make much sense unless you know the old association between the cuckoo and the term cuckold, referring to a man who doesn't know his wife is cheating on him, which came about because the cuckoo bird lays her eggs in another bird's nest, leaving the intruder to be raised by the other birds – so the association gets at very deep fears of sexual failure as well as property-related deception. A sour note in such a pretty picture of spring! So pastoral, with the birds, and the flowers, and the shepherds making music with rustic, home-made instruments, and the maidens like flowers themselves (they bleach their summer smocks, cleaning and brightening them in a way that will associate them with the lady-smocks all silver-white we saw earlier): yet underneath all the efflorescence and the music and the fertility is a sense of mockery and unease, reminding us again that in this play, love's labors are lost.

And that may be why the play ends with the coldness yet comforts of love-lacking Winter. Here we see laboring people, with simple and common names (Dick, Tom, Joan, and Marian); the women are greasy (slovenly) and red-nosed rather than flower-like. The birds do not tread or mate, but brood in the snow. The paths are foul due to snow and wet weather. Yet there is a promise of warmth, treasured all the more for the surrounding cold: the shepherd blowing on his hands, the logs brought into the hall for a fire, the hissing bowls and steaming pots. The bird associated with the scene is not the deceptive cuckoo but the owl, traditionally associated with wisdom. Each season gives us an unexpected twist in the refrain: spring brought love and loveliness, but also related uneasiness and betrayal; Winter brings us the owl, singing a merry note amid the chill.

So that concludes the 2015 series of Poem of the Week. I hope readers have enjoyed them. This one is also a bit of a preview of the upcoming year, since 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and the great poet will no doubt be an even more prominent feature of our cultural landscape for the next few months.

I used the Signet Classic edition of Love's Labor's Lost, edited by John Arthos.

25 December 2015

Friday photo 2015/52

limestone Virgin & Child, from the Lorraine region of France, around 1300 (back view)

from the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

21 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/51

Christmas in India

Dim dawn behind the tamarisks – the sky is saffron yellow –

     As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the river-side, each calling to his fellow
     That the Day, the staring Eastern Day, is born.
           O the white dust on the highway! O the stenches in the byway!
                 O the clammy fog that hovers over earth!
     And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry –
             What part have India's exiles in their mirth?

Full day behind the tamarisks – the sky is blue and staring –

     As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
     To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
             Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly –
                  Call on Rama – he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
     With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
             And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"

High noon behind the tamarisks – the sun is hot above us –

     As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner – those who tell us how they love us –
     And forget us till another year be gone!
           O the toil that knows no breaking! O the heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
                 O the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
     Youth was cheap – wherefore we sold it. Gold was good – we hoped to hold it.
             And to-day we know the fullness of our gain!

Grey dusk behind the tamarisks – the parrots fly together –

     As the Sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether
     That drags us back, howe'er so far we roam.
           Hard her service, poor her payment – she is ancient, tattered raiment –
                 India, the grim Stepmother of our kind.
     If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
             The door is shut – we may not look behind.

Black night behind the tamarisks – the owls begin their chorus –

     As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us and the hopeless years before us,
     Let us honour, O my brothers, Christmas Day!
           Call a truce, then, to our labours – let us feast with friends and neighbours,
                 And be merry as the custom of our caste;
     For, if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follows after,
             We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

Rudyard Kipling

This biting, wistful dramatic monologue takes us through an entire Christmas day – dim dawn / full day / high noon / grey dusk / black night – as seen behind the very un-English tamarisk trees. The regularity of each stanza's opening line not only provides a sort of guidepost and refrain through the poem; it perhaps also reflects the monotony and the slow pace of time in the life of the speaker, a disillusioned minor functionary of the British Raj, an Englishman self-exiled in India, thinking of home on Christmas day.

Yet he takes an acerbic view of home, and Christmas barely registers apart from his complicated views of home and India. It certainly doesn't seem to have any religious significance for him; what is born on this day is not baby Jesus but the staring Eastern Day, and the wreathes are not of pine but of smoke, above the ghat. (According to Hobson-Jobson by Henry Yule and A C Burnell, which is described on the cover of the Oxford World's Classics edition as "the Definitive Glossary of British India", the first meaning of ghat or ghaut is a "landing place; a path of descent to a river; the place of a ferry &c. Also a quay or the like.") The major event of the day is not a birth at all, but a funeral. His attitude to the funeral rituals is not unsympathetic; he refers to the dead man, feelingly, as one past all hope or caring, and he calls him a brother, though perhaps he means of the other Indians rather than of himself – his phrasing is ambiguous. Though he will later refer sarcastically to the screaming and braying of the temple's conches (presumably the shells are used as trumpets), he suggests – ironically, perhaps? with perhaps a touch of sincerity? – that Rama might hear the calls from the Hindu procession. (Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu.) The repetition of Call on Rama may suggest that he's finding the cries a bit monotonous (he seems to find much of his life monotonous).

He's aware of Hindu rituals, and not dismissive of them, but he is also aware that they are alien to him. Religion here seems mostly a national marker, rather than a theology or an approach to life. Christmas is the day on which he and his compatriots bid "good Christian men rejoice" , but the rejoicing seems more social than anything else. The phrase in quote marks comes from John Mason Neale's mid-Victorian translation of the old carol, part German and part Latin, In dulci jubilo. Germany, in the person of Victoria's husband Prince Albert, had quite an influence on the English celebration of Christmas; perhaps this explains in some way the speaker's odd use of a German word, heimweh (homesickness). The sudden appearance of this non-English word increases the sense of dislocation. What does it tell us about the speaker? We know he's not quite at home even when he is at home, taking a cynical or perhaps just realistic view of the indifference of those he left behind. They are making merry; he immediately asks what part he – one of India's exiles (self-chosen as that exile most likely was) – has in their mirth. In England the late December day is wan, contrasted to the insistent, staring blue of the Indian sky. He doesn't specify whom he left behind – parents? siblings? a wife and children? – but the Christmas feast brings a momentary, perhaps misleadingly sentimental, connection, when those who tell us how they love us will drink a health to those distant in the colonies, before (the speaker immediately adds) they forget them again, until next Christmas.

Why is he in India? It was the place to go for ambitious, restless young men who couldn't find their way in England (regardless, of course, of whether the Indians wanted them there or not). Just as it's in the cultural air these days that high finance or tech are the places to be for advancement and riches, so were the British colonies then (think of the end of David Copperfield, and the number of characters whose dilemmas are solved by shipping them off to Australia). Only, of course, just as in finance or tech these days, the riches and advancement are for the few, and drudgery and difficulty are the lot of most others. The speaker here analyzes his motives: being young, he did not realize how precious youth is; he traveled to India for gains that he obviously has not seen. And to-day we know the fullness of our gain, he notes ironically: that is, to be isolated in a foreign land, not really belonging there, but not really a part of the land he left, either. Perhaps this self-knowledge is gain enough, in some ways. And [the sun's] last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether / That drags us back, howe'er so far we roam: he's imagining the sun's last rays over "home," but most of the stanza describes the hold India now has on him, and it's ambiguous which country has him shackled: probably both. And he's reached an age at which he realizes he's taken the wrong road, but it's a little late to do much about it. He too is caught up in the mechanics of empire, and of life.

The speaker's uneasy suspension between two worlds is affirmed in the last stanza, in which he refers to his home-style Christmas celebrations as the custom of our caste, using a word associated with Hindu social customs to define his English ways. As the day closes in the last stanza, our exile offers a more sardonic view of his adopted land than he had earlier when describing the funeral; now the hooting owls compete with the screaming and braying from the temples. He sees fruitless years behind us and hopeless years before us. In between is this single holiday, Christmas Day, on which he can feel some connection, however sentimental, faint, or fleeting, with the people and traditions he left behind. "[F]aint and forced the laughter" is in quotation marks, but I'm not sure where it comes from; when I search for it, the results are mostly this poem. (Does anyone have any idea?) Regardless of source, the phrase shows the speaker's acute awareness that the good feelings associated with a traditional Christmas Day are an aberration in a world of struggle, pain, and indifference (after the toasts, those at home will forget him until next Christmas). Nonetheless he embraces the day: Christmas, with its traditional good spirits, is inherently mocking him – yet he feels himself richer for it. For the momentary connection and joy? Or for the mockery itself, which gives him some enlightening truths about his life?

This is from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

18 December 2015

Friday photos 2015/51

San Francisco City Hall lit up in red & green for Christmas; 10 December 2015. The second picture was taken a few minutes after the first; you can see how the colors became brighter and deeper. The colors kept pulsing like that.

14 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/50

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
     "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
     By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
     They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
     To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
     In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
     "Come, see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
     Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
     Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

Last week's poem was written in the certitude of belief; this week's is written out of a longing for belief. Yet it's not really religious faith that is longed for here, despite the references to Christmas, though that may be part of it.

The speaker is at a dying fire on Christmas Eve, when one of the old people refers to the ancient belief that at midnight on Christmas Eve barnyard animals reflect their ancestors' role in the original stable in Bethlehem by worshiping the Christ Child in some way. Often the story is that they are momentarily given the power of speech, but here it's that they kneel down in grateful praise of their creator. The atmosphere around this fire is rural and old-fashioned (for one thing, they are sitting around a fire, and discussing farm animals). The old folk belief is mentioned not as a charming curiosity but as a fact. Such is the mood of the group that no one there doubts it.

Doubts come in later, when the speaker (whose more sophisticated intellect puts him slightly out of place here, no matter what he temporarily feels on that Christmas Eve) describes the belief not as a matter of certainty but as "so fair a fancy" – charming, but all the more so because it is out of place with the way we live now, in industrial, urbanized, scientific (and alienated) societies. So the speaker – out of place in uneducated rural society, but also not quite happily settled in modern life – asserts his longing that this quaint notion be real. He feels (rather than thinks) that if someone invited him to see the oxen kneel, he would go.

When he imagines this invitation, it comes replete with suitably archaic, country words: yonder, as well as barton (a farmyard) and coomb (a short valley or hollow on a hillside or coastline). Melancholy attends this final stanza: the barton is lonely, it is distant from them, their childhood has long vanished, they proceed through the gloom. And he hopes, despite knowing better, that he will see that the lovely legend is real.

The longing here is not really for religious belief – it would be perfectly possible to be a staunch believer in the truth of the Incarnation and yet a doubter that some animals kneel at midnight on an arbitrary day to acknowledge it – it's really more for a vanishing way of life; not just the speaker's own childhood, but a rural, traditional and almost unchanging (until it vanishes) way of life that is in harmony with the natural cycles of the year and even with a spiritual meaning for the universe – a way of life in which even the old and experienced could unquestioningly believe that his animals know and acknowledge their creator on his birthday. It's about a longing for an unanxious community. (It's interesting to consider whether this world ever actually existed, or was created in retrospect as part of and in contrast to the modern world.)

To ask for this is to some extent to renounce modern consciousness; note the speaker's early reference to the group around the fire as a flock, a word usually associated with animals – that's the setting in which none of those around the hearth would think to question the old superstition. The oxen here – meek and mild – are appealing creatures. But could the speaker, with the essentially modern restlessness and uncertainty of his intellect, settle into such company easily? Or is he cut off from such certainty (or complacency), ever to be in-between what he knows and what he wishes were true?

This is from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poet series.

11 December 2015

Friday photo 2015/50

random Rudolphs in a drugstore window, December 2014

for my feelings about Rudolph, check here

07 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/49

A Christmas Carol

In the bleak mid-winter
    Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
    Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
    Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
    Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
    Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
    When He comes to reign::
In the bleak mid-winter
    A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
    Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him whom Cherubim
    Worship night and day;
A breastful of milk
    And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
    Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
    Which adore.

Angels and archangels
    May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
    Throng'd the air,
But only His mother
    In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
    With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
    Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
    I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
    I would do my part, –
Yet what I can I give Him,
    Give my heart.

Christina Rossetti

In the first stanza, Rossetti immediately creates a striking view of a cold, hard world: the wind is frosty, and moans; earth is hard as iron, water frozen solid, like a stone. The description is elemental: wind, earth, water; iron and stone. Everything is unyielding; there are no plants or birds or animals providing warmth or life. The snow had fallen, suggesting that it has stopped, so there is a stillness in the scene; the only movement now (but perhaps it is more of a sound?) is the moaning wind – even the labile liquids are like rocks. Rossetti rather daringly repeats snow on snow twice (those two lines have nine words, five of which are snow), giving a slightly hypnotic and numbing effect. The words softly pile up like the snow, giving us a sense of being buried under the feathery accumulation. The repeated sn and  long o (moaning like the wind) of Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / snow on snow bring a hint of softness, perhaps, at least when compared to the sharper sounds of frost and iron, but they also connect back to the s and o of stone. The first line of the stanza – in the bleak mid-winter – is scene-setting, almost a stage direction, transformed into an emotional reality through a daringly minimalist use of a few words, their sounds, and their repetition,

The timeless quality of the scene is qualified in the stanza's last line, when we are told that this bleak mid-winter was long ago. Given this information, in conjunction with the title, it's not a surprise that the poem focuses on the Nativity – but perhaps it is a bit of a shock when we immediately fly away into the Universe and contemplation of a God too vast and powerful to be held by either Earth or Heaven, and we then vertiginously swing back to the bleak mid-winter and a small, dirty stable. This will be Rossetti's method in the next three stanzas: she will evoke the celestial grandeur of Godhead adored by various rank of angels (she will again use repetition in evoking angels, cherubim, and seraphim; you get the sense of them ranked endlessly around) and then immediately contrast the golden glories with the humble but touchingly human realities of the Nativity scene. Angels worshiped him round the clock, but as the infant Jesus he is content with the worship of dull domestic animals like the ox and ass (they are traditional in Nativity scenes, referring back to Isaiah 1:3: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib).

The camel might seem like an exotic touch, but it could be considered typical for a Middle Eastern scene, though there is little else in the poem that conjures up a sense of ancient Palestine. It would also remind us of the visit of the Three Wise Men, though they themselves do not appear, nor does the Star that guided them. Rossetti strips away some of the more picturesque and even extravagant trappings of the narrative in order to sharpen the contrast between God's heavenly power and might and the lowly intimacy of the incarnation. In this regard the breastful of milk is a particularly striking expression, giving an unexpectedly physical sense of the incarnated God as a regular human child, in need not just of nourishment in the form of food but also in the form of his mother's love. She makes another, fuller appearance in the next stanza, worshiping the child with a mother's kiss. These two appearances, brief as they are, give Mary the most powerful human presence in this stripped-down, even stark, poem.

The most powerful human presence: until the final stanza, when the narrator speaks to us directly. Until then, this has been a fairly impersonal poem, opening with an invocation of a frozen world, followed by essentially theological comparisons between Heavenly power and the humblest things of earth. One reason we have such a strong sense of Mary here, even though the first reference is an indirect one (the breastful of milk), is that there simply isn't much human presence otherwise. But in the final stanza the poem becomes intensely personal: What can I give him? The speaker's first impulse is a generous one: to give something to the baby. She feels that she too is one of the humble things of the earth. Rossetti again deftly invokes the traditional nativity story with fleeting references to the shepherds and the wise men. She cannot join in their offerings, given her poverty. So she offers the one thing she does have: her heart; that is, the qualities of love and compassion (connecting back perhaps to the maternal love expressed earlier in the nurturing figure of Mary). The first stanza, with its frozen, sterile, impersonal world, is contrasted with and answered by the final stanza, with its personal choice of generosity and love.

This lyric has been set to music by several composers and has become quite popular. The text here is from the Penguin edition of The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by R W Crump and with an introduction and notes by Betty S Flowers.

04 December 2015

Friday photo 2015/49

bird on the BART steps, Powell Street Station, San Francisco, October 2015

01 December 2015

the Wilsey Center

Tickets went on sale today for the first season at the San Francisco Opera's new Wilsey Center, an intimate new theater upstairs from Herbst Theater, on the top floor of the Veterans Building adjacent to the Opera House. It's intended as a flexible space suitable for offbeat and experimental works. The building itself doesn't open until February 2016, but you can catch some glimpses provided by Michael Strickland over at Civic Center.

The first season looks eclectic and enticing, ranging from the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, chamber concerts with members of the Opera Orchestra and the Adler Fellows, live music accompanying the French animated film The Triplets of Belleville, soprano Deborah Voigt in her new one-woman show Voigt Lessons, a Serbian a cappella chamber opera by Ana Sokolović called Svadba-Wedding, and – for me the irresistible offering – the great baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser in Schubert's Winterreise, with film accompaniment by William Kentridge.

Here's the odd thing: I went to the Opera's website this morning to buy tickets, and couldn't find where they were selling them. I finally ended up calling the Opera box office, where the nice woman who helped me told me that they were not available on line yet but I could order them over the phone. Eventually, she said, the Wilsey Center will have its own site, on which tickets will be available.

And that's what I don't understand. This sounds similar to SoundBox at the San Francisco Symphony, which is not listed on their monthly calendar – like a private club, you have to know about it already to find it. (Anything to do with exclusive access and private clubs just rubs me the wrong way.) Apparently the Wilsey website will be similar. Why? If the purpose is to "rebrand" or reposition the Opera or the Symphony from "stodgy rich people with formal wear, lorgnettes, and grand marble bosoms" to "exciting adventurous hipsters in a happening scene" then wouldn't you want to associate the experimental stuff with your main site and its more (or less) traditional offerings? Why separate them? There are people who enjoy Lucia di Lammermoor as well as black-box theater (I mean, it couldn't just be me, could it?) – why not encourage each camp to try what the other one is offering? Why not make it easy?

Maybe I should be grateful for the separation, considering how awful the Opera's new website it. It used to be you'd open the site and right there on the left was a handy list of the season's operas, each clickable so you could check out cast, production, performance dates, tickets . . . now you open it and some random person who looks dressed for New Year's Eve (by the way, SF Opera: that's not going to help you attract the rest of us slobs) is grinning at me while a slogan assures me that some unspecified "it" is the perfect evening out. I don't care! For the love of God, where is the calendar? And not just "what's on" that week: where is the month-by-month season calendar?

There is some information on the Opera site about the Wilsey Center, and you can find it here, though you may need to dig around a bit to get performance dates (though I will tell you the Winterreise is 11 - 13 March 2016). In the meantime, for tickets you can call the Opera box office at 415-864-3330.

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December 2015

And another year comes to a close. As usual, this month is dominated by holiday-themed events, most of which I've omitted, on the grounds that the best ones are the ones you make a personal tradition, so you already know if your solstice is incomplete without The Nutcracker in any of its various forms (if it's not The Hard Nut, I can skip it) or without one of the Symphony's festive pops concerts. Nonetheless I do begin with a list of Messiahs, because I love it, and I end with some new or unusual holiday concerts. And in-between are various other holiday treats, like ABS's performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, NCCO's Christmas / Hanukkah concert, and the Lacuna Arts Chorale singing for the Virgin Mary. I guess it's inescapable; you might as well enjoy it.

Merry / Happy / Blessed Whatever You Celebrate, and thanks to all who come by regularly or even occasionally to read.

Ragnar Bohlin leads the San Francisco Symphony in Messiah with soloists Sarah Coburn (soprano), Lauren Segal (mezzo-soprano), Brian Stucki (tenor), and Adam Lau (bass), along with the fabulous San Francisco Symphony Chorus (and the orchestra!) on 17 - 19 December.

Nicholas McGegan leads Philharmonia Baroque in the "Foundling Hospital" edition of Messiah, with soloists Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Meg Bragle (mezzo-soprano), Isaiah Bell (tenor), and Tyler Duncan (baritone). That's 19 December at First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

American Bach Soloists give their annual performances of Messiah in Grace Cathedral on 16, 17, and 18 December. Jeffrey Thomas conducts, with soloists Hélène Brunet (soprano), Agnes Vojtko (alto), Kyle Stegall (tenor), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone) – the same quartet who will be performing Bach's Christmas Oratorio with the group (see below).

Early & Baroque Music
Jeffrey Thomas conducts the American Bach Soloists in Bach's Christmas Oratorio in St Ignatius Church in San Francisco on 12 December, with soloists Hélène Brunet (soprano), Agnes Vojtko (alto), Kyle Stegall (tenor), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone). This is the first event in a season that will see the group performing all three of Bach's oratorios.

Philharmonia Baroque, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, plays works by Handel (the Ode for St Cecilia's Day and Tra amplessi innocenti from Cecilia, volgi un sguardo) and Purcell (the Te Deum and Jubilate in D and the Suite from Distressed Innocence), with soloists Sherezade Panthaki (soprano) and Isaiah Bell (tenor); that's December 2 (in Palo Alto), 4 (at Herbst Theater in San Francisco), 5 and 6 (at First Congregational in Berkeley; the Sunday show is at 4:00).

The San Francisco Early Music Society presents Magnificat Baroque Ensemble in a program that attempts to recreate what a contemporary of Bach's might have experienced while attending the weekly liturgy. Warren Stewart will lead the group in works by Buxtehude and Hammerschmidt and Bach himself. That's 11 December at First Presbyterian in Palo Alto, 12 December at First Congregational in Berkeley, and 13 December at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco (the Sunday concert is at 4:00).

New Century Chamber Orchestra, joined by the San Francisco Girls Chorus and klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, presents what they call a "Chrismukkah" celebration, featuring holiday songs both beloved and obscure from both traditions. That's December 17 in Berkeley (First Congregational), 18 in Palo Alto (First United Methodist Church), 19 in San Francisco (Herbst Theater), and 20 in San Rafael (Osher Marin Jewish Community Center).

Joana Carneiro leads the Berkeley Symphony in brass music by Gabrieli, the US premiere of Gubaidulina's Fachwerk (with Geir Draugsvoll on bayan), and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition on 3 December in Zellerbach Hall.

Modern / New Music
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents the Del Sol String Quartet in a world premiere work by Terry Riley (part of a year-long celebration of the composer's 80th birthday): Dark Queen Mantra for string quartet and guitar (Gyan Riley will be playing the guitar). The program also includes The Wheel and Mythic Bird Waltz by Riley, Huang Rao's Calligraffiti, and Stefano Scodanibbio's Mas Lugares (su Madrigali di Monteverdi).  That's 5 December.

See also Lacuna Arts Chorale under Choral below. And there's always something intriguing listed at the Center for New Music.

The Bad Plus perform with Joshua Redman at the SF Jazz Center on 10 - 13 December.

At Old First Concerts, Lacuna Arts Chorale sings Hymns to the Virgin: A Lacuna Arts Christmas.
Sven Edward Olbash leads the chorus (with soprano soloist Winnie Nieh) in Vincent Persichetti's Mass, Christmas motets by Francis Poulenc, and works by David Conte, Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and Pierre Villette. That's on 11 December, and this may be the entry this month that covers the most categories: choral music, new music, and holiday music.

Cal Performances presents Garrick Ohlsson playing Beethoven, Schubert, and Granados, on 6 December at Zellerbach Hall.

San Francisco Performances presents mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in recital, with pianist Robert Mollicone and cellist Emil Milland. They will perform songs by Turina, Chausson, Schubert, Dvořák, and the west coast premiere of Heggie's The Work at Hand. That's 16 December at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

San Francisco Opera presents a double-bill: two adaptations (Gordon Getty's Usher House and Robert Orledge's "reconstruction and orchestration" of Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher) of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. It should be interesting to see how two versions of the same story play off each other. That's 8, 10, 11, and 13 December. The Opera's fall season closes out with a few more performances in December of The Magic Flute, the Barber of Seville, and the one and only matinee of Die Meistersinger, and let me mention again how bizarre I find it that the Opera scheduled a five-hour-plus work with only one matinee. Good luck finding information on the Opera's crappy new website!

The annual farewell concert of the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows, The Future Is Now, will take place 12 December at Herbst Theater. You may buy tickets on-line or by calling the Opera Box Office at 415-864-3330.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents La tragédie de Carmen, the chamber-opera adaptation by Peter Brooks of Bizet's classic. That's December 4 and 6 (matinee); it's free, but reservations are required.

Shotgun Players continues its tradition of offering something unusual but somehow appropriate for the holiday season with Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, directed by Patrick Dooley, running 4 December to 10 January.

Repurposed Theater presents the premiere of Megan Cohen's The Horse's Ass and Friends, directed by Ellery Schaar; that's 3 - 19 December at the Exit Theater.

SHN presents A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, the 2014 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical. The book and lyrics are by Robert L Freedman and the music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak; it is based on the hilarious movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, and, as in the movie, all the murder victims are played by one man. That's 1 - 27 December at the Golden Gate Theater.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents A Day of Silents on 5 December at the Castro Theater, with live accompaniment (by the Alloy Orchestra or Donald Sosin, depending on the film). Their events are always fun and they have another terrific line-up, including a film starring Houdini that was previously thought lost, The Grim Game. When Kino released a Houdini box set a few years ago (now apparently out of print), they included all that remained of the film: a five-minute sequence involving the hero moving from one airplane to another mid-flight (those are 1919 airplanes, by the way). Just thinking about it makes my legs turn to water, especially since the planes crashed, an accident which was incorporated in the final film (fortunately no one was hurt). But if I had to pick just one film to see, it would probably be Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman), which seems like a notable piece of French Expressionism. Check out the full schedule and buy tickets here.

Holiday Music
The Blind Boys of Alabama perform a holiday Gospel show at the SF Jazz Center on 17 - 18 December.

Also at the Jazz Center, the Klezmatics play a Hanukkah show on 20 December.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players present Phil Kline's Unsilent Night on 19 December. Participants walk around a designated area (in San Francisco's case, Civic Center) playing one of four pre-recorded tracks by Kline on whatever devices the kids are using these days (though the site says some cassette tape versions will be available in case you're going old school and bringing a boombox). This is the sort of thing that could be either magical or, you know, not. If you'd like to find out which you'll think it is, get more details here.

See also New Century Chamber Orchestra's holiday mash-up, listed above under Orchestral.