Let’s go Bach to the future – classical Christmas music for all ages

Claire Jackson channels the spirit of Christmas past, present and future to tune in to festive concerts that are completely humbug-free

Christmas Past

While modern Yuletides differ in many ways to a Dickensian Christmas – one wonders what Charles would make of a plastic excreting unicorn, this year’s ‘must-have’ toy, yours for just under £50 – A Christmas Carol’s message of seasonal goodwill remains as evergreen as a window-shop tree. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly man who changes his ways after visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come, was adapted for the stage soon after its first publication in 1843. It has continued to be reworked for theatres and screen and has inspired several operatic works, including chamber opera The Passion of Scrooge (or A Christmas Carol) (1998) by Jon Deak, A Christmas Carol (1978-1979) by Thea Musgrave and A Christmas Carol (2014) by Iain Bell.

Unfortunately, unlike The Muppet Christmas Carol adaptation (starring Michael Caine), an annual TV fixture, the operatic versions see far fewer outings. Bell’s Carol was first staged at Houston Grand Opera, directed by Simon Callow, who wrote the libretto. It was then taken up in 2015 by the Welsh National Opera, featuring the starry tenor Mark Le Brocq. Bell is currently working on Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, which premieres at English National Opera in May. Fingers crossed that his Carol will be revived again soon.

Christmas Present

Excitingly, this year sees the first UK revival of Thea Musgrave’s A Christmas Carol since its premiere in 1979. London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance is staging a new production (December 14/15) as part of its series Venus Blazing, which gives a platform to female composers. Trinity Laban’s innovative programming has shone a light on many overlooked works – including Musgrave’s festive opera. Scottish-American composer Musgrave celebrated her 90th birthday in May; Trinity Laban’s event rounds up a packed year that has seen Musgrave’s music performed across the world, including special celebrations by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and New York Virtuoso Singers.

This is also the time of year for over-indulgence, and in musical terms, André Rieu is the brandy butter to a rich figgy pudding. The Dutch violinist – known to fans as King of the Waltz – begins his UK tour this month, bringing his particular brand of Viennese schmaltz to an arena near you. Yes, you read that correctly: Rieu is one of the few classical artists to sell out an arena tour (and indeed,reportedly has a net worth of $40 million, despite previously going bankrupt after purchasing the £24 million fairytale castle he designed for his 2008 concert in Schönbrunn, Vienna). Rieu and his 60-piece Johann Strauss Orchestra performs at London SSE Arena (December 12 and 19); Birmingham Arena (13); Liverpool Echo Arena (14); Nottingham Motorpoint Arena (15); Manchester Arena (20); Newcastle Metro Radio Arena (21) and Glasgow SSE Hydro (22). Tickets are almost as hot as those to see the Spice Girls…

Christmas Yet to Come

We can expect to hear a lot of Berlioz in 2019, as the year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death (and programmers love a birth and date hook). Sir Mark Elder sets the bar high when he conducts the Hallé and Hallé Choir in La Damnation de Faust at Manchester Bridgewater Hall (February 10) – the first time the orchestra has performed the work in 70-odd years. It’s also Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös 75th birthday in January; the Philharmonia Orchestra marks the occasion with the UK premiere of Eötvös’s Multiversum, a fantasy for orchestra, organ and hammond organ (London Royal Festival Hall, February 7).