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Out & About: Portland Symphony presents major choral work

Lifestyle

Out & About: Portland Symphony presents major choral work

One of the great choral masterpieces will be the featured work Sunday when the Portland Symphony Orchestra teams up with the Choral Art Society in a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Passion According to St. John.”

Although it’s an explicitly religious work, written for the German Lutheran Church, it has achieved a worldwide ecumenical following that transcends any one faith.

Tired of the cold? The next two performances at One Longfellow Square share a common thread of warmth and warmer climes. On Friday enjoy Cajun music from the bayous of Louisiana and the following day the venue presents “Sunshine” boy Jonathan Edwards.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

For its first Sunday Classical concert of 2011, the Portland Symphony Orchestra will present a single, monumental work that dates from the Baroque period and has resonated with audiences since its first performance in 1724.

PSO maestro Robert Moody will conduct the orchestra plus four solo singers and the Choral Art Society in a performance of the “Passion According to St. John,” by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Choral Art Society will be under the direction of its longtime music director, Robert Russell, professor of vocal arts at the University of Southern Maine School of Music.

For Russell and the Choral Art Society, Sunday’s performance wraps up a remarkable string of performances that began last December with “Christmas at the Cathedral” and continued early this month with his ensemble’s Epiphany celebration.

The “Passion According to St. John” is the story of the final days of the earthly life of Jesus Christ as recounted in the Gospel of John, often referred to as John the Evangelist. The form, which resembles the oratorios that were popular during Bach’s lifetime, follows the words – verbatim text of the Gospel – of John as narrator, sung by tenor John Aler, and the words of Christ – as quoted in the Gospel – sung by bass Lawrence Albert. Smaller solo roles include the apostle Peter, roman administrator Pontius Pilate and two servants.

The Gospel narrative is interspersed with choral numbers, mostly drawn from German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes. The purpose of these numbers is to comment on the action, underscore the most important points of the story and to add depth and strength to the emotions implied (but not always explicitly stated) in the words of the Gospel. In particular, the chorus will portray a number of crowd scenes, including the dramatic moment where Pilate offers the populace a choice between pardoning Jesus or a common criminal.

Musically, the “Passion” represents a stellar example of the art of Bach, the most important composer of the German Baroque period. Always counted among the greatest composers of all time, Bach was a master of all forms of music that were popular in his day, and was a particularly prolific church musician. Hundreds of Bach’s hymns and cantatas remain in the commonly performed repertoire to the present. Among his largest scale works are the “Passion” and a second version that is based on the Gospel of Matthew.

Mark Rohr, the PSO’s longtime program annotator, describes one of the most salient points of the work: “One source of endless fascination for listeners is the incredible virtuosity with which Bach sets the text; no composer before or since is better at illuminating the meaning of words with music.”

Although the “Passion” was intended for church performance – Bach led several during his lifetime – the work’s appeal extends far beyond the original setting because of the universal themes and emotions that drive it. Rohr explains: “Who does not know sacrifice, compassion, honor, betrayal, transcendence and, above all, love? These things are not the special province of religion, they are woven into the very fabric of life. So it is that all are invited to witness the beauty and power of the story; whether one is a believer or merely a theological tourist, the richness of the ‘Passion According to St. John’ belongs to everyone.”

Portland Symphony Orchestra presents the “Passion According to St. John” at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Jimmy Jo and the Jumbol’ayuhs

Looking for a respite from winter’s cold and snow? One Longfellow Square presents music of the Louisiana bayou country this Friday in Portland. And you’re encouraged to dance.

Jimmy Jo and the Jumbol’ayuhs is a Cajun dance band that plays traditional dance hall music from the bayous and prairies of southwest Louisiana. But they won’t be traveling too far to get to Portland; the five members of the group hail from Mid-Coast Maine.

(That juxtaposition isn’t totally suprising. The word “Cajun” derives from “Acadian,” and refers to older names for the part of the world that is now known as Maine. Much of the French population was driven from Maine during the 1700s and many refugees resettled in Louisiana.)

The Jumbol’ayuhs are: Jim Joseph on Cajun accordion and fiddle, Pam Weeks on fiddle, Bill Olson on guitar, Elna Joseph on electric bass and Kit Garovoy on a variety of percussion instruments that include drums, Cajun triangle and Zydeco rubboard. The band has studied with many of the Cajun master musicians in Louisiana and deliver an authentic sound.

Catch Jimmy Jo and the Jumbol’ayahs at One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State in Portland) at 8 p.m. Jan. 28. Call 761-1757.

Jonathan Edwards

Several Minnesota-born popular musicians came to fame in the 1960s and 1970s, including Bob Dylan, Leo Kottke and Jonathan Edwards. The latter burst onto the national scene in 1971 with a pleasant, upbeat and uplifting self-penned song titled “Sunshine.” It sold more than a million copies and is still often heard on the radio. The song launched Edwards’ career, which continues to the present.

After leaving Minnesota, Edwards has lived mostly in New England, including Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Since “Sunshine,” Edwards has released 14 albums and he has collaborated on recordings with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Cheryl Wheeler. One Edwards album, “Little Hands,” was cited by the National Library Association as a notable children’s recording. He has also scrored two movie soundtracks, “The Mouse” and “The Golden Boys.”

Theatrical gigs included playing the leading male role in a national touring production of the Broadway musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

Jonathan Edwards appears at One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State in Portland) at 8 p.m. Jan. 29. Call 761-1757.