San Francisco Symphony's magical 'Messiah' 

click to enlarge Holiday glee: The San Francisco Symphony Chorus is participating in a new program of carols and Christmas music on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Davies Hall. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Holiday glee: The San Francisco Symphony Chorus is participating in a new program of carols and Christmas music on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Davies Hall.

For a weighty reference to Handel’s “Messiah,” consider that Beethoven spoke of it as one of the great works in all music. And so it is, of course, a global favorite since its premiere in 1741.

The San Francisco Symphony’s annual holiday presentation of the oratorio about Christ’s birth, held in the 2,743-seat Davies Symphony Hall, is notable among many prominent local performances.

San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin will conduct performances Dec. 16-18, likely to a full house. Soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo Kelley O’Connor, tenor Richard Croft and baritone Michael Todd Simpson are the soloists joining the chorus and orchestra.

Describing the piece, Bohlin says, “It is Handel’s greatest oratorio through the ages, requiring the very best from soloists, chorus and orchestra. The chorus needs to be flexible, malleable to sing in each of the piece’s different styles convincingly.”

Even in its first section, “Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation,” each part has a different sound and style, from the contemplative orchestral opening to the lyrical tenor arias of, “Comfort ye my people,” and, “Every valley shall be exalted,” to the rousing chorus, “and the glory of the Lord.”

Variety and a constantly shifting musical focus continue throughout the “Messiah.”

Asked if he minds when the audience sings along at a concert as if it was a “sing-along ‘Messiah,’” Bohlin says, “That would be fun and maybe that could happen some other year, but for these concerts we encourage the audience to just sing along silently in their heads, but not louder than that, so they can hear what the chorus and the orchestra have to offer.”

In addition to the “Messiah,” the symphony offers numerous seasonal concerts, beginning with a new program Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 called “The Best Time of Year: A Christmas Special,” featuring the chorus and orchestra playing classical Christmas music and time-honored carols.

Among other acclaimed “Messiah” productions with large audiences is the American Bach Soloists presentation in Grace Cathedral led by Jeffrey Thomas and featuring soprano Mary Wilson, countertenor Ian Howell, tenor Charles Blandy and baritone Jesse Blumberg.

Philharmonia Baroque doubles up on holiday presentations with Bach’s mighty Mass in B Minor and period-instrument performances of “Messiah,” both led by Nicholas McGegan. Renowned early music specialists join McGegan, the Philharmonia Baroque and Bruce Lamott’s Philharmonia Chorale for the two masterpieces.

The Philharmonia has recorded “Messiah,” and McGegan conducted the work at the BBC Proms — in September — as mandatory Christmastime performances apply only to the U.S., something that’s also true about “Nutcracker.” In Europe and Asia, both pieces are played regardless of the season.

McGegan represents a big segment of “Messiah” fans who separate music and religion.

“Not being very religious, I do not celebrate Christmas, but as for music, I love such marvelous, noble works,” he says. “As to the holly, ivy, sleigh bells and reindeer, I remain totally indifferent.”

The contentious matter of standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus originates from a belief that at the London premiere, King George II did so. Yet there is no evidence that the king was present at all, and the first reference to standing appears years after the premiere.

In recent times, smaller and smaller segments of the audience stand, and some may do so as a kind of musical seventh-inning stretch.



Presented by the San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17, 2 p.m. Dec. 18

Tickets: $30 to $135, half-price for ages 17 and under

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

Note: The symphony’s new program, “The Best Time of Year: A Christmas Special,” is at 8 p.m. Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Davies Hall.

Hallelujah here

San Francisco City Chorus

Larry Marietta directs the open-community chorus in the yearly “Sing-along Messiah.” Scores are provided.

When: 3 p.m. Dec. 4

Where: Lakeside Presbyterian Church, 201 Eucalyptus Drive, S.F.

Contact: (415) 968-9523,

SF Sinfonietta Orchestra & Chorus

Urs Leonhardt Steiner leads musicians, chorus members, soloists and an enthusiastic audience in the annual “Sing It Yourself Messiah.”

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 5

Where: Mission Dolores Basilica, 3321 16th St., S.F.

Contact: (415) 392-4400,

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale

Nicholas McGegan and Bruce Lamott conduct the award-winning ensemble and chorus in their only Bay Area performance of Handel’s beloved work.

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 10

Where: Zellerbach Hall, University of California Berkeley Campus, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, Berkeley

Contact: (510) 642-9988,

Note: Philharmonia Baroque performs Bach’s Mass in B Minor at 8 p.m. Dec. 2 at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

American Bach Soloists

The acclaimed Bay Area ensemble presents the oratorio in its original 1741 orchestration, performing on period instruments in sacred surroundings.

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15-16

Where: Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., S.F.

Contact: (415) 671-7900,

San Francisco Academy Orchestra

Alden Gilchrist conducts the group’s third annual “Sing-It-Yourself-Messiah,” a benefit for local charities. One rehearsal will be held at 10 a.m. Dec. 17.  

When: 4 p.m. Dec. 18

Where: Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2515 Fillmore St., S.F.

Contact: (415)506-7139,

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.
Pin It

Speaking of...

More by Janos Gereben

Latest in Classical Music & Opera

© 2019 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation