Season of 'Nutcracker,' 'Messiah' starts early

In the Moscow Ballet version of "The Nutcracker," a “Dove of Peace” leads the young girl at the heart of the story and her Nutcracker-turned-Prince to the "Kingdom of Love and Harmony."

The holiday season wouldn't be the holiday season without colorful music and dance events.

And, just as department stores break out the Christmas decorations earlier and earlier, some performing arts organizations get into the swing before Thanksgiving. A couple of stage versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," for example, are already up and running, with more on the way.

Handel's evergreen oratorio "Messiah" and Tchaikovsky's beloved ballet "The Nutcracker" will be here in abundance before you know it, along with all sorts of seasonal concerts by any number of ensembles, starting next weekend with a holiday program by the Canadian Tenors.

Here is just a sampling of performances that promise to add to the cheer during the closing weeks of 2012.

The Nutcracker

Although not a huge success at its premiere 120 years ago, "The Nutcracker" quickly became one of the most popular ballets ever produced. With an enchanting story about a young girl's Christmas Eve dream and a richly tuneful score by Tchaikovsky, the work is an unshakable staple of the holiday season.

Two productions due in Baltimore this year stand out.

One is the result of a first-time collaboration involving four of the city's finest institutions — the Baltimore School for the Arts, providing the dancers; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, providing the musicians; the Maryland Institute College of Art, producing the scenery; and the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, providing the venue.

"For the performing arts in this country to move forward, collaborating is absolutely essential, and this has been a fantastic collaboration, with everyone working very closely together," said Barry Hughson, executive director of Boston Ballet and choreographer for this "Nutcracker."

It is too soon to know if this group venture will be attempted again. "We need the people of Baltimore to turn out," Hughson said. "If we can fill the theater, I don't see any reason why we can't continue it into the future."

Hughson credits the lasting popularity of "Nutcracker" to its "very simple, accessible story. A lot of companies have felt the need to change or modernize it. My 'Nutcracker' stays very true to the original. It's a classic version of a classic," he said.

Another classic version — with a twist or two — will be presented by the Moscow Ballet at the Hippodrome. The dance company is celebrating its 20th anniversary of touring North America with what it calls the "Great Russian Nutcracker," originally choreographed by Stanislav Vlasov.

"This is a fairly traditional approach," said Lee Mills, the Peabody Institute alum who will conduct the performances, "but instead of the scene shifting to 'The Land of Sweets' in the second act, it's 'The Land of Peace and Harmony.' It's all about exploring other nationalities and showing how everyone can be happy together."

In the Moscow Ballet version, a "Dove of Peace" leads the young girl at the heart of the story and her Nutcracker-turned-Prince to that brotherly kingdom. The dove has previously been portrayed by a single dancer. This year, a new costume will be unveiled; it requires two dancers and will give the dove a 20-foot wing span.

Also new to the production this year is ballerina Olga Kifyak, who has a slew of international ballet medals to her credit. She joins a cast of 40 dancers.

Moscow Ballet, which is performing the "Great Russian Nutcracker" in 73 cities this season, typically dances to a taped soundtrack. But Baltimore is an exception; the Concert Artists of Baltimore will be in the pit to perform Tchaikovsky's famous music.

"The score is incredible," Mills said. "In terms of beauty alone, I don't think there are very many scores that can match this."

Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker: Dec. 14-15 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. 410-547-7328,

Collaborative Nutcracker: Dec. 21-22 at Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. 410-547-7328,

More Nutcrackers:

Baltimore Ballet, Dec. 8-9 at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, 1021 Dulaney Valley Drive, Towson. 410-667-7974,

Ballet Theatre of Maryland, Dec. 8-9, 15-16 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. 410-280-5640,

Ballet West, Dec. 5-9 at Kennedy Center, 2700 F. St., N.W. 800-444-1324,

Handel's Messiah

Handel wrote "Messiah" in 1741 to be performed during Eastertide, but the tripartite oratorio has long been a Christmastime fixture, thanks to Part I of the score, which reflects on the Nativity story, and the rousing "Hallelujah" Chorus that closes Part II.

It's common to hear abridged versions of "Messiah," but the Baltimore Symphony's performance is proudly note-complete. This year's 30th annual presentation, featuring the Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale, will be conducted, as every year, by Edward Polochick. Known for some lightning tempos, he typically makes the long work seem much shorter.

"I've noticed that only a few people leave now after the 'Hallelujah Chorus,'" he said. "Those that stay know that the truly great chorus is the one that ends Part III. Every time I sit down at the harpsichord to lead a performance, it's always different. 'Messiah' is not just enduring. It's constantly changing."

The longest-running "Messiah" tradition in town comes from the Handel Choir of Baltimore, which will give its 78th annual presentation of the oratorio this year. Artistic director Melinda O'Neal, who will be leaving her post at the end of the season, will conduct an abbreviated version of the score.

If audiences will not hear all of what Handel wrote, they will hear more of the sounds that he heard.

"We're using an orchestra of period instruments," O'Neal said, "and our vocal soloists are experienced singing with such an orchestra."

The oratorio, which was first performed to raise money for charity, "reflects Handel's compassion," O'Neal said. "He was a very giving person, and he empathized with people incredibly well."

One more reason why "Messiah" fits the Christmas season so well.

BSO's "Messiah," Dec. 7 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. 410-783-8000,

The Handel Choir of Baltimore's "Messiah," Dec. 15 at St. Ignatius Church 740 N. Calvert St.; Dec. 16 at Towson Presbyterian Church 400 W. Chesapeake Ave. 410-366-6544,

More 'Messiah':

Columbia Pro Cantare, Dec. 2 at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. 410-799-9321,

Annapolis Chorale, Dec. 14-16 at St. Anne's, Church Circle. 410-280-5640,

National Symphony Orchestra, University of Maryland Concert Choir, Dec. 21-23 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F. St., N.W. 800-444-1324,

Holiday concerts

The splashiest, most festive seasonal presentation in recent years was the Baltimore Symphony's Holiday Spectacular, famed for its tap-dancing Santas. Although that costly production is on hiatus, the orchestra has a new venture for 2012 called Holiday Pops Celebration.

"It is a different kind of product," said Matthew Spivey, the BSO's vice president of artistic operations, "but it's in the same feel-good, family tradition. There will still be holiday decorations, lighting and snow."

Robert Bernhardt will conduct a program of secular and pop music of the season featuring vocalist Daniel Narducci and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

Those choristers will also have the spotlight in the 29th annual Christmas with Choral Arts. The event is usually held at the Baltimore Basilica, but repairs going on there have necessitated a move to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

"This is not a holiday concert," said Choral Arts music director Tom Hall. "We are not being coy. We are not trying to acknowledge all the other different traditions at this time of year. It's a Christmas concert, and a classical concert."

A rich assortment of works by the likes of Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn is scheduled, along with contemporary pieces by Dave Brubeck, a Nigerian carol by Babatunde Olatunji and "a lovely setting of 'Ave Maria' by great African American composer Nathaniel Dett," Hall said.

BSO Holiday Pops Celebration, Dec. 13-16 at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. 410-783-8000,

Christmas with Choral Arts, Dec. 4 at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St. 410-523-7070,

More holiday concerts:

Canadian Tenors Friday through Nov. 25 and the Vienna Boys Choir Dec. 8 at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. 410-0783-8000,

Annapolis Chorale Celebration of Christmas, Dec. 6-7 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. 410-280-5640,

Annapolis Symphony Swingin' Season's Greetings with Tony DeSare, Dec. 14 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. 410-263-0907,

Concert Artists of Baltimore Christmas Cheer, Dec. 15-16 at Engineers Club, 11 W. Mount Vernon Place. 410-625-3525,

U.S. Army Field Band Sound the Bells, Dec. 10 at Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St.

Maryland State Boychoir, 22nd annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Dec. 16, 22-23 at Center for the Arts, 3400 Norman Ave. 410-554-8644,

Grace United Chancel Choir Annual Christmas Concert, Dec. 9 at Grace United Methodist, 5407 N. Charles St. 410-433-5540,

More holiday productions

'A Christmas Carol'

The grandfather of all Christmas stories, the one with Scrooge, ghosts and Tiny Tim, too, has frequently been adapted for the stage. Area audiences can check out several versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," including:

•A version with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, through Dec. 30 at Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia. 410-730-8311,

•The Nebraska Theatre Caravan offers an adaptation by Charles Jones, Dec. 16 at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. 410-547-7328,

•One-man version adapted and performed by Paul Morella, Nov. 30 through Dec. 20 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road. 301-924-3400,

•Michael Wilson's adaptation through Dec. 30 at Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington. 202-347-4833m

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas'

National touring production of the Broadway musical, Dec. 11 to Jan. 6; and Washington National Opera's production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," Dec. 21-23; both at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W. 800-444-1324,

For more Baltimore-area holiday performances, go to