CLASS ACT: New, old traditions highlight holiday music season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tradition permeates every facet of holiday celebrations, especially music. One has only to hear a measure of Silent Night or Jingle Bells to instantly recognize the song and, indeed, to sing it.

However, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic takes the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage on Dec. 16 and 18, they will be performing a work that is not a tradition … at least, not yet. When John Adams’ El Nino debuted in 2000, the composer (and others) hoped that this so-called “nativity oratorio” would become a Christmas season staple, a 20th century version of Handel’s famed work, Messiah.

One reason that might prevent such an acceptance is the forces required to perform Adams’ 90-minute work. In addition to a full orchestra — with a percussion section that includes a glockenspiel, triangles, gong, almglocken, guiro, maracas, crotales, high cowbells, temple block, tam-tam, chimes, claves and two temple bowls, along with guitars, harp, piano and a sampler — the work is scored for chorus (in this case, the Los Angeles Master Chorale), children’s choir (the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus), and six vocal soloists, including three counter tenors.

Adams himself will be conducting the two L.A. performances and two of the counter tenors, Daniel Bubeck and Brian Cummings, sang in the world premiere in Paris. The performances will be part of the L.A. Phil’s season-long celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday (which will actually take place on Feb. 15).

For those who prefer a traditional telling of the nativity story, the Phil will intersperse El Nino with performances of Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 15 and 17. Noted French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie will lead the LAPO, his own chorus, La Chapelle de Quebec, and four soloists.


There will be plenty of other Messiah performances throughout the month. Among them will be Julian Wachner leading the Choir of Trinity Wall St. Church in New York City and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra on Dec. 7 at Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. Information:

Another performance will come from the Pasadena Master Chorale, led by Jeffrey Bernstein, performing on Dec. 11 at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Information:

Among the churches offering Christmas programs this year will be La Canada Presbyterian Church, on Dec. 18. The centerpiece of the program will be a performance of “Silent Night, Holy Night,” a piece commemorating the 1914 Christmas truce during World War I. Tony award- and Emmy-award winning actor Courtney B. Vance will narrate the work. Information:

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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