Out & About: Aztec Two-Step celebrates album anniversary

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Concerts of several musical stripes are coming up this weekend in southern Maine.

The most interesting might be described as a retro-celebration. A classic folk-rock album from 1975 will be recalled in Portland on Friday, when Aztec Two-Step (Rex Fowler and Neil Shulman) perform songs from their second album, “Second Step.”

Oratorio Chorale’s fall program is titled “Prodigies,” and three performances are scheduled this weekend in Portland and Brunswick.

Portland Symphony Orchestra has slated Johannes Brahms’ epic Piano Concerto No. 2 on Sunday, featuring guest artist William Wolfram at the keyboard.

Aztec Two-Step

First Pittsfield, then the University of Maine at Presque Island and then the world. Growing up in the Kennebec Valley town of Pittsfield, Rex Fowler first got serious about music while studying in Presque Isle. Upon graduation he felt he was ready to take on the world.

That’s the start of the story of the career of poet-guitarist-singer-songwriter Rex Fowler.

The other half of the story is Neal Shulman, a fellow artist with similar talents and aesthetic values. When the pair met at an open mic in Boston in 1971, creativity clicked and a lifelong friendship and professional partnership blossomed.

Fowler and Shulman formed Aztec Two-Step, naming their folk-rock act from a line in a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a beat poet. Fowler and Shulman have always self-identified with the beat generation. Perhaps their most famous song concerns Dean Moriarty, a principal character of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

That phrase is also an apt description of the long career of this iconic folk-rock duo. Now based in New York, Aztec Two-Step has been touring the world – especially college campuses, coffee shops, folk festivals and intimate music rooms – for 44 years. This Friday the road leads to downtown Portland.

Over the years, Fowler and Shulman have recorded 15 albums together. Their second, appropriately titled “Second Step,” was released 40 years ago. For this Friday’s concert, Aztec Two-Step plans to perform many of the songs from that album.

Catch Aztec Two-Step at 8 p.m. Nov. 20 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Oratorio Chorale

The Midcoast-based Oratorio Chorale, a fixture on the Maine music scene since 1974, opens its 2015-2016 season with three performances this weekend in Portland and Brunswick. The Chorale will be joined by members of the Maine Music Society and guest pianist Christopher Staknys, a Falmouth High School graduate. Emily Isaacson, now in her third year as Chorale’s music director, will conduct.

Works by four composers will be featured in a program titled “Prodigies.” As might be guessed by the title, the common link between the four, who came from four different countries, is that they started composing at a very young age.

Henry Purcell, the master of the English Baroque period, began writing music at age nine. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Austrian who represents the apotheosis of the late Classical period, began astonishing audiences with his compositions at age five.

Two composers represent the early Romantic period. Felix Mendelssohn, a German, published his first piano quartet at age 13 and his first full symphony at 15. Frederic Chopin, a Polish-French composer, wrote the first of his many polonaises when he was seven.

The latter composer will be represented by his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, with 19-year-old Staknys at the keyboard. Staknys, a Falmouth High School graduate and 2014 performer on National Public Radio’s “From The Top,” is an aspiring and accomplished pianist and composer currently studying at the Juilliard School. The Chorale will also premiere Staknys’ “The Window,” based on a poem by Conrad Aiken and composed on commission this past summer.

The Oratorio Chorale presents three performances of “Prodigies” this weekend: Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland and Nov. 22 at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 333 Maine St. in Brunswick. Call 800-838-3006.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

“There is perhaps no great piano concerto grander than the Brahms B flat. With the spaciousness of a symphony, the drama of an opera, the intimacy of a lullaby and the intertwining raptures of the greatest love songs, it touches on almost every emotion with extraordinary immediacy and power. Its virtuosity is spell-binding, yet always substantial.”

That’s the summary of an analysis by Jeremy Siepman, writing for Naxos Records’ “Classics Explained,” of the showcase work on this Sunday’s Portland Symphony Orchestra concert: Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

Ever since it premiered in 1881, critics have struggled to adequately describe in words the power and majesty of Brahms masterpiece. I’ve heard it performed live a number of times, and I’ve listened to many recordings, and I think Siepman’s description is as good as any.

Brahms was Europe’s premier symphonic composer of the late 1800s, and he worked on a scope and scale that was unmatched by his contemporaries. He performed the piano part himself at the premiere, and performed it many times since. It is today one of the mainstays of the symphonic canon.

No. 2 is certainly big. With four movements, one more than normal for a concerto, and a run time of more than 50 minutes, its sheer size and thematic breadth are monumental among the classics.

As soloist for the Nov. 22 performance, maestro Robert Moody has picked William Wolfram, an American pianist who won silver medal at both the William Kapell and the Naumberg international piano competitions. Plus he was a bronze medalist at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and a finalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Wolfram has appeared with many orchestras and has recorded extensively for Naxos.

While the Brahms will be the big item on the program Moody has also selected two other works, both of which deal with carnivals. The opener will be “Carnival Fever,” by Cynthia Lee Wong, a contemporary composer from Massachusetts.

Wong has commented on her work: “Composing ‘Carnival Fever’ was an enjoyable and inspiring experience. I wrote the piece very quickly, and hopefully my enthusiasm can be sensed in the music. Moments whip past at a brisk pace, filled with a whimsical, joyful spirit. At the same time, a serious intensity lies beneath the celebratory mood.”

The wrap-up will be Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” a musical fable about a puppet show at a carnival, where the eponymous wood-and-cloth character comes to life and interacts with two of his fellow puppets at the fair.

Catch the Portland Symphony Orchestra at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 22 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Aztec Two-Step is Rex Fowler, left, and Neal Shulman. The pair have been performing together since 1971.