There’s no shortage of pinnacle holiday arts events arriving during the last two months of 2023. That said, the greatest limitation to catching a special show isn’t desire or artistic taste, it’s time and the ticket price of choosing “select all” when loading your cart. Offering temptation while calling attention to appearances by top talent right here in the East Bay, these venues and arts organizations present a wealth of bands, ensembles, solo visual and music artists, and more.
In a performance that marks their Zellerbach Hall debut, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus brings the Holiday Spectacular that’s part concert, part comedy revue. With more than 100 voices, the chorus can blow the roof off the hall while also capturing every heart in the audience, with soloists rendering such nuanced, sweet sounds a person could weep with joy. Beloved holiday songs, funny sketches and 45 years of showcasing the nationwide LGBTQ+ choral movement have firmly established the group as a Bay Area jewel. Host Cal Performances says, “Expect favorites like ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ classical choral works, and surprises galore!” Broadway World says the SF Gay Men’s Chorus is representative of gay communities worldwide: “diverse, proud and creative as the rainbow.” calperformances.org
Oh, happy, happy, holiday (arts)! Kitka’s all-woman vocal arts ensemble has, since 1979, captivated audiences with the rich, vibrant culture and traditional songs of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Every year, their Wintersongs performances offer a trove of seasonal music ranging from boisterous Slavic folk carols to sacred Eastern Orthodox choral works to original new pieces inspired by wintertime and indicative of the ensemble’s versatility. This year’s two concerts in Oakland are titled “Sustenance” and are a musical response to the question, “What sustains us in times of darkness, scarcity, uncertainty and hardship?” Kitka’s songs and folk carols express gratitude, shower blessings, delight with humor and sing praises honoring faith, family and friends we hold dear year-round. One promise that can be made about a Kitka concert: Those who open not just their ears but also their hearts will leave with renewed feelings of community, good cheer and hope. kitka.org
Oakland Symphony and Chorus
What can be said other than the facts about Oakland Symphony’s annual blitz, Let Us Break Bread Together? The 2023 show in Oakland’s downtown Paramount Theatre features the symphony, led by conductor Omid Zoufonoun, and the chorus, under director Ash Walker. In this celebration of the legendary Tina Turner, soloists, ensembles and choirs joining the Oakland team include vocalists Maiya Sykes and Ty Taylor, performing/recording group Best Intentions, Klezmer ensemble Kugelplex, Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Contra Costa High School Chorus and Cal State East Bay Singers. Separately and together onstage, the message is not only musical, it’s collaborative, multicultural and a mesmerizing showcase of human cooperation and artistic excellence. oaklandsymphony.org
Don’t try to pick a single event to attend at Yoshi’s, because six undeniably solid holiday shows pack the December roster. Or do pick, and choose one of a six-show run Dec. 29-31 featuring the legendary Pete Escovedo and his orchestra. Earmarked as a retirement tour, the Latin Grammy Award-winning jazz artist celebrates 67 years in the entertainment business and, belatedly, his 86th birthday, on July 13. Hustle to grab tickets and the chance to croon your “Auld Lang Syne” while raising a glass to toast one of the music industry’s grand jazz masters. yoshis.com
Freight & Salvage
At the top of December, the unfathomable, durable and divine guitarist/singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn anchors two shows with his latest album, O Sun O Moon, continuing a 53-year legacy of original songs composed in hot pursuit of love, environmental, political and social justice, and hope for a better world to come.
Assuming a person already has gathered their spikiest, sparkliest dance shoes, the only other accessory necessary is a ticket to the Dec. 7 appearance of all-women big-band Melba’s Kitchen, with special guest and infinite vessel of jazz-piano greatness, Tammy Hall. In addition to that slam-dunk, the Freight features a slew of CD-release events.
On Dec. 17, Grammy Award-nominated, Bammy Award-winning pianist, singer-songwriter and fiddler Barbara Higbie burns a blustery groove with her newest Winter Solstice album. Two-time Grammy Award-winner and violinist Mads Tolling and his Mads Men band will meld the music of Christmas and Tolling’s native country’s yule tunes on their new album, Cool Yule, a jazz-infused collection of American jazz and traditional Christmas and Nordic songs, on Dec. 20. thefreight.org
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives
This shiny edifice, perched on Center Street just across from the UC Berkeley campus and steps from downtown Berkeley, is like a babushka doll. Nestled inside the spiffy exterior walls and an interior set alight with crimson stairways, BAMPFA in December hosts several ongoing, visit-worthy exhibitions and films, but also new art shows and terrific, one- or two-off cinema opportunities.
Be in awe of Argentine artist Gabriel Chaile’s towering or engorged anthropomorphic clay sculptures that resemble otherworldly creatures and trace their origins to ancient anti-colonial resistance movements by drawing from the Inca empire’s Spanish, Afro-Arab and Indigenous traditions.
Another first solo exhibition in the United States has Canada’s Sin Wai Kin presenting two of their most recent video works, The Breaking Story (2022) and Dreaming the End (2023). Through storytelling and characters linked to their early performances as part of England’s drag scene, Kin takes a sword to binary definitions that constrain identity while aiming for social change.
Multiple films pop and shine like jewels on a necklace, with a trio of Yasujiro Ozu classics accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano, Selcen Ergun’s chilling anti-fairy tale, Snow and the Bear, Béla Tarr’s astonishing Werckmeister Harmonies and more. bampfa.org
Berkeley Repertory Company
The Rep’s Bulrusher begins with a baby in a basket and spins out a metaphorical, humorous and often mysterious coming-of-age story about a young girl finding her identity and a place in the world. Catch it before it wraps up on Dec. 3. Also at the rep is Harry Clarke, but tickets to see Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor Billy Crudup in this solo performance are selling fast, so hustle up if you expect to land a seat before the show closes Dec. 23. berkeleyrep.org
Aurora Theatre CompanyOver at Aurora Theatre Company, the current show is 1984. Adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan from George Orwell’s iconic novel, this powerhouse production punches its way through a landscape of Big Brother surveillance, offering supreme relevance and directed by none other than the venerable Barbara Damashek. In-person and streaming performances end Dec. 10. auroratheatre.org