Boar's Head Festival a colorful end to the holidays 

Is Christmas behind you? Not so fast. The authentic end to the holiday period is the celebration of Twelfth Night (Jan. 5) and Epiphany (today).

To mark the event, San Francisco Renaissance Voices is producing the Boar’s Head Festival this weekend.

The concert-and-feast occasion features soprano Susan Gundunas, roast pork pie, Shakespeare, wassail (hot mulled cider) and merrymaking of all kinds.

Boar’s Head is the British way of marking Twelfth Night, but it precedes Christianity, going back to ancient times when the boar was sovereign of the forest. Hunted as a public enemy, boar was the first dish served at banquets.

As Christian beliefs overtook pagan customs, the presentation of a boar’s head at Christmas, beginning in the 14th century, came to symbolize the triumph over sin. (Renaissance Voices will substitute roast pork for boar, however.)

Katherine McKee, Renaissance Voices’ assistant music director and conductor, says the show gives the group the opportunity to introduce a 650-year-old tradition to prospective audience members who are busy in December.

“Now you can enjoy performances featuring traditional holiday music apart from the hectic pace of last month,” McKee says.

With its usual multicultural approach to repertoire, Renaissance Voices — presenting music from  China, India and Turkey in addition to period music from Europe — is expanding the scope of the festivities.

Celtic harpist Diana Rowan will present works for solo harp, including an ancient Byzantine chant called “Aghni Parthene” (“O Pure Virgin”) by St. Nectarios of Aegina, and “Sheep Beneath the Snow,” an old Manx lament.

Gundunas will sing French carols and songs set to texts from the English and French Renaissance, and recite Shakespeare sonnets. Choral offerings draw from medieval and Renaissance repertoire,  as well as 20th-century music set to ancient texts.

McKee says choral selections reflect her personal passion for British choral music. The singers will perform a “treasure trove of gems,” including carols such as the “Gloucestershire Wassail,” as well Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin,” Pearsall’s double choir setting of “In Dulci Jubilo” and Wishart’s “Alleluja.” And of course, “The Boar’s Head Carol” itself.

The celebration, widespread in Europe and on the East Coast, came to San Francisco last year for the first time. The audience response was so positive that the organization made Boar’s Head an annual event, and expects to sell out both venues.


The Boar’s Head Festival

Presented by San Francisco Renaissance Voices

Where: Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church, 1329 Seventh Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $25 to $30
Contact: (415) 664-2543,
Note: The program repeats at 4 p.m. Sunday at First Lutheran Church, 600 Homer Ave., Palo Alto

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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