Classically Trained: From Handel to hand bells, a packed December

December is going to be a busy month for the Pacific Symphony, which will play favorites of both the holidays and the classics in the coming weeks.

Acclaimed American cellist Alisa Weilerstein is the featured soloist Dec. 6 through 8 for Dvorak's Cello Concerto.

The Pacific Symphony will be guest-led by Alexander Shelley, an Englishman who is the chief conductor for the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra in Germany.

Debussy's "La Mer" and Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" round out the program for the 8 p.m. concerts.

This month, Decca Classics released Weilerstein's debut album, which includes her rendition of Elgar's Cello Concerto alongside the Staatskapelle Berlin and conductor Daniel Barenboim. In addition to winning a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2011, she is the first cellist in more than 30 years to be signed by Decca, according to a Pacific Symphony news release.

Tickets start at $25.

On Dec. 8, the orchestra also has two Family Musical Mornings concerts. Set for 10 and 11:30 a.m., the 45-minute shows are kid-friendly and have a carnival — with carolers, three hand bell choirs and a ballet-themed museum — at 9 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.

True to the holiday spirit, the Pacific Symphony will play selections from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet, accompanied by dancers from the Fountain Valley-based Festival Ballet Theatre and narrator Bree Burgess Rosen of Laguna Beach's No Square Theatre. Tickets start at $29.

Members of "Elf Philharmonic" — aka the Pacific Symphony Santiago Strings, one of the orchestra's three educational ensembles — will also play for a sing-along portion.

Assistant conductor Maxim Eshkenazy leads both performances, which, after four seasons, will be his last for the series.

"With this being my final family concert, I hope to leave the audience with a smile," he said in a prepared statement. "I have treasured working with the symphony's talented musicians, the time I've spent with the kids after concerts and being a part of the symphony — an influential mechanism that creates and gives so much to the Orange County community."

Taking the baton from Eshkenazy is Costa Rican conductor Alejandro Gutiérrez, who officially debuts at the Jan. 12 Family Musical Mornings concert featuring Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

At 3 p.m. on Dec. 9, the Pacific Symphony will have its annual performance of Handel's "Messiah." John Alexander, the longtime director of the Pacific Chorale, leads the show that also features the chorale as well as vocalists Kiera Duffy, Jane Shim, Norman Shankle and Stephen Morscheck.

Tickets start at $25.

"Many regard 'Messiah' as one of the greatest compositions ever written," said Alexander in a prepared statement. "In the realm of choral orchestral music, 'Messiah' has probably received more performances than any other composition ever written.

"I have conducted some 30 performances of 'Messiah' during my career, yet I have never grown tired of performing this great masterwork. Each time that I approach it as a conductor, I marvel at its beauty, structure and originality."

All the performances are in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. For more information, visit or call (714) 755-5799.

BRADLEY ZINT is a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at

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