Ladysmith Black Mambazo to visit Portland

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A powerful nine-man a cappella vocal group from South Africa is the headline act among this weekend’s performing arts choices. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a five-time Grammy Award-winning ensemble that has been dazzling worldwide audiences for half a century, visits Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Saturday.

A pair of unrelated early music acts are slated for Friday and Saturday in Portland. First will be St. Mary Schola performing “Masterworks of Lent” at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, followed by a program titled “The Many Faces of Mozart,” slated for St. Luke’s Cathedral.

Bluesman James Montgomery holds forth at One Longfellow Square in Portland on Friday.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

An iconic South African male singing ensemble that has crafted musical magic for a worldwide audience will be visiting Portland this Saturday. Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be part of Portland Ovations’ ongoing Seeking Resonance series.

For more than half a century, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has married the intricate rhythms and harmonies of indigenous South African cultural traditions to the sounds and sentiments of Christian gospel music. The result is a musical and spiritual alchemy that has been carried to every corner of the globe and every religious, cultural and ethnic landscape.

Created in the early 1960s by Joseph Shabalala – who still leads the group – the nine-man ensemble took its curious name from three elements. Ladysmith is the name of the founder’s hometown; Black is a reference to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals; and Mambazo is the Zulu word for axe, a symbol of the men’s ability to “chop down” any musical rival who might challenge them. (They got their start by consistently winning a series of Saturday night amateur singing contests, which continue to the present.)

The group borrows heavily from a traditional style of music that developed among the miners of South Africa. Their aesthetic focuses on preserving musical heritage in addition to entertaining.

A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract – the beginning of an ambitious discography that currently includes more than 50 recordings, five of which have won Grammy Awards.

More than three decades ago, Paul Simon introduced the ensemble’s rich mix of tenor and bass harmonies to the pop music world on “Graceland,” his milestone 1986 recording. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has also worked with numerous other pop artists, including Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and Phil Collins.

Portland Ovations presents Ladysmith Black Mambazo at 8 p.m. March 10 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

St. Mary Schola

“Early music,” usually defined as European classical music of the 17th and 18th centuries, is the forte of several southern Maine musical ensembles, as well as three music festivals in Portland. One of the mainstays of our state’s claims to early music prominence is St. Mary Schola, an ensemble based at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Falmouth.

Comprising a dozen-plus singers and about eight instrumentalists, the group performs three programs per year. Currently they’re on their second program of 2017-2018, titled “Masterworks of Lent,” which will be presented three times within the next week.

St. Mary Schola is led by Bruce Scott Fithian, a retired professor of music at the University of Southern Maine School of Music. He conducts from a keyboard – either harpsichord or portative organ. Works on the program include pieces by two lesser-known composers of the Italian Baroque period, Giacomo Carissimi and Carlo Gesualdo. German-English composer George Frideric Handel and German Johann Sebastian Bach will also be represented.

Although Carissimi is perhaps the least-known composer on the program, Fithian points to his enormous historical influence, crediting him with spreading Italian musical ideas and styles throughout Europe because of his many students in Rome.

Three performances are slated: March 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St. in Portland, March 11 at 4 p.m. at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 43 Foreside Road in Falmouth and March 13 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland. Visit StMarySchola.org.

Sylvia Berry

A fascinating look at the greatest composer of the late 18th century is the attraction of an unusual program slated for Saturday. Sylvia Berry will perform a program titled “The Many Faces of Mozart” and subtitled “A Life Told Through Music and Letters.”

This intriguing program pairs keyboard works from every period of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s brief but brilliant life with letters written by the composer to his family and friends. Musical selections range from Mozart’s earliest compositions – at age 8! – to a transcendently beautiful piece written in the final year of his life.

Berry is one of North America’s leading exponents of the fortepiano, an early version of the instrument that evolved into today’s piano. She will play a replica of a Viennese instrument crafted by Anton Walter, the builder of Mozart’s own. The original is housed at the German History Museum in Nuremburg.

Berry is a Boston-based performer and musicologist who has appeared with the Portland Early Music Festival. She is a Mozart specialist who has garnered rave reviews in the press. Writing for the Boston Musical Intelligencer, reviewer Liane Curtis commented: “Sylvia Berry is a spirited and nuanced performer whose performance drew an amazing range of energy and expression from the delicate instrument, which itself provides a rich palette of tone colors.”

Catch “The Many Faces of Mozart” March 10 at 7 p.m. at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland. Visit SylviaBerry.org.

James Montgomery

It’s amazing how far one can go with such a simple instrument. That’s one lesson that can be learned from James Montgomery, veteran blues harmonica player.

In 1970, while studying English literature at Boston University, Montgomery formed the James Montgomery Band. His inimitable harmonica playing combined with his incredibly energetic live shows led to the band’s quick ascension on the New England music scene. Within two years, the James Montgomery band was among the hottest acts in Boston along with J. Geils and Aerosmith.

Capricorn Records came calling with a major recording contract, and Montgomery’s long career was launched. It’s still flourishing. I attended one of his Portland shows a few years ago and I was extremely impressed by his technical skills and artistic aura.

Still based in Boston, Montgomery and bandmates maintain a busy touring schedule. The next Maine date will be Friday, March 9 at 8 p.m. at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a five-time Grammy Award-winning ensemble from South Africa, will perform Saturday at Merrill Auditorium, hosted by Portland Ovations.

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