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Essential Canadian classical Christmas concerts of 2016

Matthew Parsons

Christmas is looming. For the next 25 days (at least) you won't be able to go out in public without being struck repeatedly by the blunt instruments of enforced merriment that are "Wonderful Christmastime" and "All I Want for Christmas is You." But never fear: symphony orchestras, choirs and concert series across Canada are gearing up to present programs of seasonal music that won't jingle-jangle your nerves.

Here is a totally non-comprehensive list of 10 concerts that we think look like a rollicking good holiday time. Hopefully, there's one here that's close to where you and yours will be celebrating this year. So, from west to east:

Early Music Vancouver: J.S. Bach's Magnificat

EMV's music director, Alexander Weimann, just dropped a spectacular, lean and thoughtful recording of this classic Bach sacred work with the Arion Baroque Orchestra. So, this performance with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra seems like a sure bet. The Magnificat was originally written for Christmas Vespers services in 1793. Nowadays it's generally performed with a full choir, but Weimann and company will be presenting it the way that it was likely first heard: with a complement of five soloists singing the vocal music one-per-part. If the recording is any indication, it's sure to be a totally different musical experience that way.

The performance will be held at 3 p.m. on Dec. 18, at the Chan Centre.


Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Handel's Messiah

The ESO knows that there are Messiah lovers and then there are Messiah lovers. We imagine that's why they're presenting Handel's most inevitable masterwork twice in its entirety, and also once in a matinee performance of just the hits. On the evenings of Dec. 9 and 10, audiences at the Winspear Centre can hear the full Messiah in all its glory and majesty. But for those among us who feel that only 65 minutes of Messiah will sate our annual hankering, there's a 2 p.m. matinee on Dec. 11. Ragnar Bohlin conducts, and the lineup of soloists includes star bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. You can't lose.

Manitoba Chamber Orchestra with Andriana Chuchman

The MCO's Christmas program, on Dec. 7 at Westminster United Church in Winnipeg, steers admirably clear of the usual suspects. But it does make a brave attempt to pair "serious" classics with sing-along carols. On the serious side, conductor Mark Morash will lead the MCO in Sibelius's Andante Festivo and Haydn's 49th symphony, and soprano Andriana Chuchman will join them for Mozart's Exultate Jubilate and Rachmaninov's Vocalise. On the other side, there's "O Holy Night" and "The 12 Days of Christmas," for everybody to join in. In any case, you can be sure that at least one person in the hall will be singing beautifully.

Toronto Consort: A Medieval Christmas

The Toronto Consort definitely does concerts all year long, but its Christmas album, The Little Barley-Corne, is such a classic that it's hard not to identify its instantly recognizable sound with this time of year. This December, the Consort will be focusing on the Christmas music of the 12th-century visionary Hildegard von Bingen and the early 16th-century worship song collector Anna von Köln. They're doing three shows, on the evenings of Dec. 9 and 10 and the afternoon of Dec. 11, all at the Trinity St. Paul's Centre.

Art of Time Ensemble: And to All a Good Night 2

The Art of Time Ensemble does things differently, and Christmas is no exception. Its second annual Christmas concert will feature arrangements by local composers of familiar songs ranging from the Elvis classic "Blue Christmas" to the Tom Waits cheer-fest "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis." Plus, the ensemble will convene in its big-band formation to perform excerpts from Duke Ellington's rendition of the Nutcracker — which is the preferred one, frankly. This looks like the best choice for unsentimental Torontonians looking to feel their holiday joy within the safe boundaries of irony. That's at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, from Dec. 15 through 17.

Orchestre Métropolitain: Christmas with Valérie Milot

After her outstanding Orbis record earlier this year, there is practically no musician we'd rather join for Christmas celebrations than harpist Valérie Milot. Fortunately, she'll be touring with the Orchestre Métropolitain and conductor Julian Kuerti to a different venue each night between Dec. 13 and 17, and then finishing off with a matinée at the Maison symphonique de Montréal on Dec.18. She'll be busting out the Glière Harp Concerto, which is not massively seasonal. But the rest of the orchestra will be happy to fill the gap with The Nutcracker. Check out their website for more info on venues.

Club musical de Québec: The King's Singers

Possibly the most illustrious visitors that musical Canada will be recieving this Christmas, the King's Singers are one of the great modern a capella groups. They've taken advantage of the relative brevity of works in their idiom to put together a Christmas program of sweeping range. It's not often you get to hear Orlando di Lasso, Tchaikovsky, Arvo Pärt and Leroy Anderson on the same program. But a lucky crowd at Quebec City's Palais Montcalm will, on Dec. 13.

I Musici de Montréal: J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio

There's almost nothing you can't hear in Montreal this Christmas. But for those who are sick of Messiah and Nutcracker (and you may well be by the end of this list, let alone this month), I Musici is performing three of the six cantatas from what is, plain and simple, one of the best pieces of music ever. Bach's Christmas Oratorio has too many irresistible moments to count. But the most important thing is that they are doing the sixth and final cantata, so if you decide to venture to Salle Bourgie on Dec. 17 or 18, you will get to hear this:

Symphony Nova Scotia: The Nutcracker

In Halifax, you can take your pick of the two classical Christmas blockbusters. And we're sure you couldn't go wrong with a Messiah featuring mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, among other wonderful musicians. But we're giving the nod to SNS's Nutcracker, simply because there's dancing — professional dancing, by dancers from Ballet Jörgen. In an era where real, live dancers and real, live musicians don't collaborate as much as you'd like, that's a real attraction.

Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra: Handel's Messiah

And so, our eastward journey leads us inexorably back to Handel. St. John's looks to be getting an especially good Messiah this year, with countertenor Daniel Taylor and tenor Benjamin Butterfield joining other soloists to bring the piece to life once more. And the fact that it's happening in the rather striking Basilica of St. John the Baptist doesn't hurt, either. That's on Dec. 16 and 17.

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