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Out & About: Arlo Guthrie, Peter Serkin and Oratorio Chorale

Lifestyle

Out & About: Arlo Guthrie, Peter Serkin and Oratorio Chorale

Coming up on the last full week of the "regular" arts and entertainment season – noting that the month-long torrent of Christmas-oriented performances starts on Thanksgiving weekend – let's highlight three fine events for music aficionados.

Arlo Guthrie, son of America's famous mid-20th-century folk singer and scion of this country's long tradition of folk music, will appear with his family this Friday under the aegis of Portland Ovations. Looking at the big lineup of Guthrie children and in-laws, you might also call them a lot of folks.

Classical pianist Peter Serkin is also a scion of a famous musical family. He's slated to appear two nights later, also thanks to Portland Ovations. Serkin's program mostly comprises modern works, including several by living American composers.

Oratorio Chorale opens its 36th season with a pair of Advent concerts on Saturday and Sunday.

Guthrie Family Concert

Thanksgiving is a time for family reunions, and the big family of singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie is no exception. It will be an event filled with extra helpings of melody and big dollops of humor. Plus Portland Ovations, the new moniker for PCA Great Performances, is inviting nearly 2,000 members of the public to share this musical Thanksgiving celebration at Merrill Auditorium this Friday.

Giving thanks for Thanksgiving is especially apropos for Guthrie. His best-known song – the one that catapulted him to stardom and made him a musical icon of the late 1960s – is based on an incident that happened on Thanksgiving Day in 1965. Over-brimming with humor and irony, "Alice's Restaurant" is still played on Turkey Day by many classic pop radio stations. (Due to the song's extreme length, about 20 minutes, it's seldom played at any other time and it isn't on the Nov. 20 program.)

Guthrie is the son of Woody Guthrie, who was arguably America's favorite folk singer. The elder Guthrie, sometimes characterized as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour," was active between the 1930s and the 1950s. He wrote "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," "Grand Coulee Dam," "Roll on Columbia" and dozens of other tunes. He inspired a generation of singer/songwriters, most notably Bob Dylan. Plus son Arlo.

The concert's formal title is "The Guthrie Family Rides Again," and it brings the first family of American folk music together to celebrate the creative tradition that inspired three generations of great musicianship, dating back to patriarch Woody.

"The spirit of the Guthrie family has been passed down from generation to generation," Guthrie says.

This family reunion concert will celebrate the classic songs of the American folk tradition, as well as the Arlo Guthrie songbook and the powerful music of Arlo's father.

Joining Guthrie on stage will be son Abe and daughters Cathy, Annie and Sarah Lee. Also featured will be Sarah Lee Guthrie's husband, popular singer-songwriter Johnny Irion.

Portland Ovations presents "The Guthrie Family Rides Again" at 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 20, at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Oratorio Chorale

The Brunswick-based Oratorio Chorale will open the Christmas/Advent musical season the weekend before Thanksgiving, performing a selection of lesser-known works, mostly by 20th-century composers Nov. 21-22 in Bath and Yarmouth.

The 36-year-old choral ensemble, directed by Peter Frewen, will be joined by the Maine Chamber Ensemble, the Parish Ringers, organist Ray Cornils and harpist Jara Goodrich.

As he always does, Frewen has selected an intriguing program, which exalts musical excellence and eschews the commonplace. I've attended a number of Oratorio Chorale performances in recent years and always come away delighted and enlightened.

"Ringeltaenze," by contemporary American composer Libby Larsen, is a centerpiece of the concert. Larsen, who lives in Minnesota, is one of only a handful of contemporary classical composers who makes a living exclusively by her music. Several of her large-scale pieces have been played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra in the past decade.

"Ringeltaenze" is written for some very unusual musical forces: choral ensemble, strings and handbell choir. The thematic core of the piece revolves around a sextet of Christmas songs dating from the 15th to 17th centuries, rearranged with significant variations.

"These are imaginative settings," explains Frewen. "Their ancient modal scales atop the foil of contemporary harmonic language, their festive rhythmic drive and exuberant vocal flights, the clear peal of bells and underlayment of strings create a colorful and charming addition to the usual repertoire."

Other works include John Cameron's choral variations on several themes by Edward Elgar. It's really a case of variations on variations: Cameron's piece rearranges and recasts several of the themes from Elgar's famous "Enigma Variations."

Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" is scored for chorus and solo harp and uses elegantly simple melody and harmony to reflect on the spiritual mysteries of Christmas.

Other composers on Frewen's program include Gerald Finzi and Dominick Argento. An excerpt from Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B-Minor is the only item on the program that dates from before 1900.

Oratorio Chorale presents its Advent concert twice this weekend: Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at United Church of Christ in Bath and Nov. 22 at 3 p.m. at Sacred Heart Church in Yarmouth. Call 725-1420.

Peter Serkin

There's another classical concert on Sunday afternoon that mostly presents modern works. Pianist Peter Serkin will play a solo recital at Merrill Auditorium under the aegis of Portland Ovations.

Serkin's career has been largely defined by 20th-century composers, including some of the most modernistic, challenging and academically oriented.

Scion of a prominent musical family, Serkin lives in Massachusetts and teaches at the Longy School in Cambridge. He is an ardent proponent of contemporary styles and has premiered several piano concertos by Charles Wuorinen with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Levine. Most recently he gave the first performance of Wuorinen's Piano Quintet (teamed up with the Brentano String Quartet) at the Rockport (Mass.) Music Festival.

Serkin counts many recordings to his credit; the most recent is the complete works for solo piano by Arnold Schoenberg, the early 20th-century Viennese inventor of 12-tone music and most famous proponent of that severe atonal style.

Serkin's Portland recital will open with three short pieces by Schoenberg. The first half of the concert also includes a 1914 composition of Claude Debussy and more recent works by Wuorinen and Gyorgy Kurtag, a prominent Hungarian modernist.

The second half will open with a suite of familiar and popular works by Frederic Chopin – Serkin's only nod to pre-1900 music – before wrapping up with another Schoenberg composition.

Portland Ovations presents Peter Serkin at 3 p.m. Nov. 22 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.