Out & About: 2 big Christmas choral concerts

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The first weekend of December arrives, heralded by two big Christmas concerts by southern Maine choral ensembles.

First off the mark is the Portland Community Chorus, led by Rob Westerberg, which holds its annual “A Yuletide Celebration” on Friday and Saturday in South Portland.

Then ChoralArt, directed by Robert Russell, gives four performances of its annual Christmas at the Cathedral program on Saturday and Sunday in Portland.

Not everything is in Christmas mode however.

Portland’s Good Theater offers its annual Broadway show through Sunday, the Portland String Quartet performs its second concert of the 2017 season on Sunday, and Portland Ovations hosts Banda Magda on Dec. 7.

Portland Community Chorus

Numbering about 150 voices, the Portland Community Chorus is southern Maine’s biggest vocal ensemble. The chorus performs two annual programs, one in December and the other in the spring. This weekend these singers present two performances of “A Yuletide Celebration” in South Portland.

Director is Rob Westerberg, a prominent New England music educator and choral maestro. This weekend’s selections include traditional Christmas music, both sacred and secular, a few seasonal and Chanukah-themed pieces. Among the seasonal items is a medley of songs from Disney’s “Frozen.”

Andrea Cole, who sings soprano with the group, has written one piece. In her own words: “There are many well-known Hanukkah songs, but not many that are relatable to a wider or more secular modern audience. I wrote ‘Let’s Light the Candles Again’ to hopefully fill that need. It describes the warm feeling of family traditions that most of us have in the holiday season, but from a decidedly Jewish perspective!”

Portland Community Chorus presents “A Yuletide Celebration” at South Portland High School, 637 Highland Ave., for two performances: Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. Call 370-5320.

Christmas at the Cathedral

Of all the Christmas plays and concerts that I attend – about 10 each year – I think my favorite is the annual concert performed by ChoralArt in conjunction with the Portland Brass Quintet and organist Christopher Pelonzi. Christmas at the Cathedral combines superb traditional choral and instrumental music in an utterly magnificent setting.

The ensemble’s longtime director is Robert Russell, a retired music professor who led the choral program at the University of Southern Maine for many years.

Russell’s program includes sacred and secular pieces that are very familiar plus a number of less familiar gems, a few of which are by contemporary composers. There are two wonderful signature items that are performed every year. “Personent hodie voces puerulae” dates from 1582 and traces its origin to Finland.

The processional performance of “Silent Night,” with members carrying candles in the darkened space and completely surrounding the audience, concludes every year’s program.

ChoralArt presents Christmas at the Cathedral at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St. in Portland, with four performances slated: Dec. 2 at noon and 8 p.m., and Dec. 3 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call 828-0043.

Broadway stars at Good Theater

Broadway musicals of the 1950s will take center stage as Good Theater presents its annual December concerts through Sunday.

Director Brian Allen’s format is fairly regular. He recruits a cast of Maine talent and then interpolates some New York stars. His programming selections focus on some aspect of musical theater, and his special guest artists always boast stellar Broadway credentials.

This year’s visitors are Eric Kunze and Kathy Voytko. Both have played major roles in major hit productions, including “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon,” “Damn Yankees,” “Nine” and “Oklahoma!”

Allen is a Broadway aficionado who also teaches a course on musicals at the University of Southern Maine. “I particularly love the musicals of the 1950s,” says Allen. “There will be many songs our audiences will know, but I’ve also found some rare or forgotten gems that are sure to delight.”

Good Theater is at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. in Portland (top of Munjoy Hill). Performances are slated for Nov. 29-30 at 7 p.m., Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 2 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. Call 835-0895.

Portland String Quartet

There’s a distinctly Maine flavor to the Portland String Quartet’s program this Sunday. Two of the four pieces to be performed were written by Maine composers who enjoyed long and distinguished careers as music professors.

Both men hailed from New York, lived for decades in Maine and died in 2016.

Peter Re was music professor at Colby College from 1951 through 1986. In addition to writing music, Re conducted the Colby Symphony and the Bangor Symphony. A year after he retired from teaching, Re wrote his String Quartet No. 3 on commission from the Portland String Quartet. It will be reprised this Sunday.

Elliott Schwartz came to teach at Bowdoin College in 1964 and lived and composed in Maine until his death last December. He wrote his final work, a string quartet, in the fall of 2016 in memory of his wife of 53 years. It’s informally titled “For Deedee.”

Other pieces on the program are by Ludwig van Beethoven and Paul Hindemith.

Catch the Portland String Quartet at 2 p.m. Dec. 3 at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call the LARK Society at 761-1522.

Banda Magda

Presenting music from the four corners of the globe is one of the several missions of Portland Ovations, and executive director Aimee Petrin has outdone herself with the next offering.

New York-based Banda Magda is as multinational as an ensemble can get. It’s fronted by Magda Giannikou, a 36-year-old Greek-born singer-songwriter who holds a degree in film scoring from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Her bandmates – several are also Berklee alums – hail from four other countries: the U.S., Argentina, Japan and Colombia.

This intriguing ensemble of musical friends performs in seven different languages and have visited 22 countries since Giannikou formed the band in 2010. In performance, Banda Magda moves from samba to French chanson, from Greek folk tunes to Colombian dances and Afro-Peruvian blues. Their songs reflect the best of 20th-century pop ballads and film scores, drawing on the band’s global background and unrestrained musicality.

They’ve released three albums and are currently on tour in support of the latest, “Tigre.” Their first album reached No. 9 on Billboard’s World Music chart.

Portland Ovations presents Banda Magda at 8 p.m. Dec. 7 at Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

ChoralArt will perform its annual Christmas at the Cathedral four times this Saturday and Sunday in Portland.

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