Hark! A Brief Guide to Knoxville's Classical Music Options During the Holiday Season

At this time of year, some among us may be having visions of Sugarplums, while others are, perhaps, dreaming of a white Christmas. As for me, I've been wishing for a holiday season in Knoxville filled with lots of interesting music. The middle of December, though, is way too late for grousing. Organizations make their decisions and schedules months in advance. So let's sort through our musical stocking and hope that what remains of the music season are gems and treasures.

What constitutes good holiday music is, of course, subjective. My own definition is a broad one and covers sacred and secular, medieval and modern, solstice and Santa Claus, although I could easily do without "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" or Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime." Musical context is equally important. Even the classic "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" (music by Felix Mendelssohn) gets to George Bailey in Frank Capra's marvelously sentimental film It's A Wonderful Life. Beset by financial difficulties, Bailey angrily blows up at little daughter Janie who has been dutifully—and continuously—practicing the tune on the piano for days. Yet, by the end of the film and with crisis averted, Janie has mastered the song and accompanies a chorus of Bailey's friends and family in that classic tear-provoking finale. What a difference a couple of reels make.

Schedules, too, affect what we get to hear, and what we don't. One of the area's major sources of music, the University of Tennessee School of Music, performed its last concert, the annual holiday choral concert, at the end of November due to its semester schedule. Knoxville Opera, in between productions in December, is a bit conspicuous by its absence in the holiday music scene. I imagine that a semi-staged oratorio with chorus and soloists would be a big opportunity for everyone, and a welcome one for listeners.

But there is still plenty of music in store. WUOT 91.9 FM, UT's NPR affiliate and Knoxville's only source for jazz and classical music on the radio, has a full schedule of holiday music both in its regular programming and in evening specials, even including recordings of local concerts you may have missed. On Monday. Dec. 20, at 8 p.m., the station will air the UT choral concert from November, with the renowned St. Olaf College Christmas Festival, which features more than 500 student musicians, at 9 p.m. Other WUOT broadcasts include a diverse range of holiday music, from the ensemble Chanticleer to Jazz at Lincoln Center to traditional carols. Check the station's website, wuot.org, for a complete schedule.

If you'd prefer to stay home by the fire, I can't recommend enough the San Francisco Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, which was taped for PBS's Great Performances in 2007. The soloists are stellar and the physical production is gorgeous. Check PBS for broadcast times.

Of course, it is difficult to imagine what our musical season would be without the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's holiday concerts. Now in its 24th year, the concerts feature the KSO along with the Knoxville Choral Society, the Sound Company Children's Choir, Go! Contemporary Dance Works, and a right jolly old elf who just happens to have an excellent baritone voice.

This year's concert, as it always has been in past years, should be a feast for lovers of choral music. The Knoxville Choral Society will be featured in a number of classic works including "We Three Kings of Orient Are," the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah, and the expected selection of traditional carols, as well as Maestro Lucas Richman's own composition, "Hanukkah Fantasy."

Holiday characters that have become a part of the contemporary season are woven throughout the program—Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas, "Frosty the Snowman," and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." Go! Contemporary Dance Works will be featured in two reindeer-themed works, Richman's "Reindeer Variations" and "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer." And what would the season be without the traditional sing-along accompanied by the full chorus and orchestra. After all, community good cheer is what the holidays are all about.