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Fiddlin’ Away the Year

Top-notch fiddlers, candlelight concerts and Portland’s finest round out 2016
The Ensemble of Oregon. Photo: Cherie Renae Studios.
The Ensemble of Oregon. Photo: Cherie Renae Studios.

If it’s fiddles you fancy, this holiday season will be merry and bright, because we’re seeing a phalanx of fine fiddlers on Eugene stages to close out 2015. 

Fiddler extraordinaire Darol Anger has long since left Oregon for the East Coast to teach at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music. But he’s coming back to Hi-Fi Music Hall 9 pm Friday, Dec. 18, to play seasonal acoustic music, and he’s bringing singer-songwriter Emy Phelps (who cut her teeth playing in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), plus cellist Tristan Clarridge (of The Bee Eaters), hammered dulcimer master Simon Chrisman (also of The Bee Eaters) and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz. Anyone who’s followed Anger’s four-decade career through the David Grisman Quintet, Turtle Island Quartet, Montreux and Psychograss knows that his skills and influences span the spectrum from bluegrass through jazz, Americana, roots and beyond.

Like Anger, one-time national fiddle champion Alex Hargreaves has played with the great mandolinist Mike Marshall and the Grisman Quintet. He’s also performed with Anger himself, and studied at Berklee. At 7 pm Sunday, Dec. 20, at Tsunami Books, he’s performing with the Jacob Jolliff Trio, whose namesake mandolinist is the newest member of Yonder Mountain String Band.

Classical fans also have some fancy fiddling in store at the Oregon Mozart Players’ annual Candlelight Baroque concert 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday, Dec. 18 and 19, at First Christian Church. Oregon Mozart Player’s own violin virtuosi Alice Blankenship and Yvonne Hsueh seize the solo spotlight, along with cellist Ann Grabe, in a concerto grosso by Alessandro Scarlatti. The wind players come to the fore in Handel’s Samson overture and J.S. Bach’s first Brandenburg Concerto, while artistic director Kelly Kuo solos and leads Bach’s first keyboard concerto from the harpsichord.

University of Oregon Jazz Ensemble lead alto saxophonist Jessika Smith graduated last year with a master’s degree and took over the Eugene Composers Big Band, leveraging her pre-grad school big band experience in Spokane. At 7:30 pm Saturday, Dec. 19, at The Jazz Station, she’s leading a concert celebrating the release of her splendid debut album on PJCE Records, the Portland jazz composers record label now run by another former UO jazz star, Douglas Detrick. Recorded at the UO with 21 of her favorite players, Tricks of Light is a surprisingly (for a first effort) tight, varied and accomplished debut that’s certain to appeal to fans of straight-ahead, large-scale jazz, while generally steering confidently clear of big-band clichés. Smith is clearly an Oregon jazz star on the rise.

Holiday music and other wintry sounds are ringing in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church. At noon Friday, Dec. 18, soprano and UO prof Laura Decher Wayte sings seasonal music by Reger, Wolff and other classical composers. On Saturday, Dec. 19, at 3 pm, the mighty 130-voice Portland Gay Men’s Chorus travels down I-5 to bring its annual holiday show to the church with songs celebrating the solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and more. At 4 pm Sunday, Dec. 20, the church hosts its annual Messiah Sing, this time adding an orchestra to its performance of Handel’s glorious oratorio featuring the church choirs, Wayte and other soloists.

Another, smaller set of Portland singers arrives next week for what is my top recommendation for all holiday concerts this year: The Ensemble of Oregon consists of some of Portland’s finest singers, all drawn from top choirs in a city internationally renowned for its formidable choral scene. At 7 pm Saturday, Dec. 26, at Central Lutheran Church, accompanied by harpist Kate Petak, the vocal quintet sings 20th- and 21st-century music by Benjamin Britten (Ceremony of Carols) and two of the world’s hottest young choral composers -— Norwegian-American Ola Gjeilo and Brit Tarik O’Regan.