The holidays present an ideal opportunity to be enchanted by the melodies, harmonies and uplifting music of the season. After visiting department store window displays, finishing some Christmas shopping or lighting the Hanukkah candles, you can gather with family and friends for performances featuring the dramatic grandeur of massive pipe organs, the intimate charms of symphonic music and the magic of storytelling through dance and words. Free or inexpensive holiday concerts and performances this year include everything from the invigorating choruses of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, a Kwanzaa storytelling show, a rousing klezmer celebration of Hanukkah, a caroling showcase lit by candlelight and interpretations of The Nutcracker created specifically for children. These performances warm and nourish the spirit, reminding us of the beauty of the season.
The Riverside Church
With its soaring neo-Gothic architecture, its massive Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, as well as a carillon that’s among the world’s largest, The Riverside Church is a liturgical music venue certain to leave you in awe. At Riverside’s popular Candlelight Carol Festival, at both 3:30 and 6pm on December 19, The Riverside Choir, The Riverside Chamber Singers and The Riverside Inspirational Choir will lift their voices to that purpose. They will be joined by The Riverside Ringers, a group of 30 musicians who play handbells. Selections will include Christmas carols and music by John Rutter and Vaughan Williams, as well as a piece from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy by Sergey Rachmaninoff, a gospel version of a traditional Christmas song and a plainchant sung in procession from several different locations in the church’s nave. The festival closes with choir and audience singing “Silent Night” as the darkened nave is gradually lit up by candlelight. A carillon recital precedes both festival performances at 3 and 5:30pm. Tickets range in price from $10 to $25.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is an equally sublime destination, and its two pipe organs and spacious nave provide a resonant setting for celebrating Noel. “A City Singing at Christmas,” a free concert held this year on December 16 at 7pm, is something out of a storybook, with not one but three esteemed choirs taking part: the Cathedral of St. Patrick Choir, the New York City Master Chorale and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The New York Symphonic Brass, the cathedral’s ensemble in residence, will play along with some of the selections, which will include “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “The First Nowell” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The choruses will join together for a choral arrangement of “O Holy Night” and the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The evening’s spiritual apotheosis arrives with “Silent Night,” when the church becomes aglow with the light of hundreds of candles distributed to audience members. The concert usually attracts standing-room crowds, so it’s best to arrive early (seating begins at 6:15pm).
The Interchurch Center
Handel’s iconic work takes center stage at The Interchurch Center’s (TIC) annual “Messiah Sing,” on December 1, as part of its weekly noontime concert series. The audience is invited to join the TIC choirs in singing the “Hallelujah” chorus as well as other rousing classics. Music scores will be available. On December 8, the center’s community chorus will perform Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. TIC musical director Christopher Johnson describes the work as an “exciting collection of carols, in expressions ranging from haunting to soothing to frenzied.” The TIC Gospel Choir will perform a collection of Christmas gospel highlights on December 15.
Flushing Town Hall
The spiritual music of the season takes many forms, ranging from ethereal carols to the swirling, intertwining Eastern European melodies of klezmer music, yet the various genres have a similar aim: to bring the mind, body, and spirit to a higher plane. To provide a taste of this, Flushing Town Hall hosts the Alicia Svigals Trio for “A Klezmer Hanukkah Party” on December 5, the fifth night of the Festival of Lights. Svigals, a member of the seminal klezmer band The Klezmatics, is a fiddler nonpareil whose solos are heady affairs that capture the spirit and verve of the Eastern European shtetl amid the modern-day metropolis.
The festivities continue at Flushing Town Hall on December 12 and 19, when the Ballet for Young Audiences performs The Nutcracker. This narrated, hour-long rendition of the story is intended for youngsters who can appreciate fairy-tale music, costumes and characters even if they can’t yet pirouette themselves. On December 18, join singer and storyteller Robbi Kumalo (aka Robbi K) for “An All Ages Kwanzaa Celebration,” a playful presentation of the holiday’s seven guiding principles. Accompanied by two percussionists, Kumalo segues gracefully from African folktales to call-and-response songs in which she guides audiences to sing and dance to the music. All three events start at 2pm and cost $16 for adults and $12 for children (or $12 and $10, respectively, for members).
Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
Eleanor Reissa will fete Yiddish music and Hanukkah at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on December 12 at 2:30pm. She’ll be performing numbers from her one-woman show of Yiddish and Yiddish-influenced songs, Hip, Heymish and Hot, along with stories and roof-raising renditions of Tin Pan Alley classics such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Accompanying Reissa is a quartet with serious klezmer cred: among them, trumpeter Frank London, a member of The Klezmatics and Hasidic New Wave. Tickets cost $18 (or $15 for members).
Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts
Brooklyn College’s Chorale and Chamber Choir offer their annual “Holiday Concert” on December 9 at 5pm at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, located on campus. The free concert features excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s gorgeous O Magnum Mysterium and Josquin des Prez’s Gaude Virgo, Mater Christi, as well as quintessential holiday tunes like “The Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”). A few days later, on December 12 at 2pm, Dance Theatre in Westchester presents The Colonial Nutcracker, setting the classic ballet in Colonial Yorktown during the Revolutionary War (the mouse army wears red coats). This abridged, narrated version is geared toward children ages 4 and up. Tickets are $6 in advance and $7 at the door.
Lehman Center for the Performing Arts
For the sixth year, The Bronx Opera Chorus and The Orchestra of the Bronx bring Handel uptown for “A Bronx Messiah,” on December 12. Led by chorus founder and artistic director Michael Spierman, the concert will consist of major portions from all three sections of the oratorio, employing a chorus of the same size Handel had used, as well as his original orchestration. Tickets run from $10 to $25 ($10 for any seat for children ages 12 and under). The audience is invited to stay for “A Taste of the Bronx,” a showcase of food from Bronx restaurants, immediately following the performance (free with concert admission).
Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum
The Bronx venue Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, a historic residence that dates from the 1840s, presents the intimate charms of chamber music in an old-world atmosphere. On December 11 and 12, at 1 and 3pm, the Bronx Arts Ensemble Singers give a taste of a traditional Dutch celebration of Christmas, recounting the story of Sinterklass (aka Santa Claus). They will be accompanied by the Bronx Arts Ensemble’s Double-Reed Band, featuring oboe, oboe d’amore, English horn and bassoon. The concert is free, but tickets must be ordered in advance by contacting the Bronx Arts Ensemble at 718-601-7399 or through its website.