Out & About: Bluegrass, mandolin meet jazz, classical

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Unconventional collaborations in music and dance underlie several of the top performances during the upcoming week. For starters, Portland Ovations and the Portland Symphony Orchestra are teaming up to bring mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile to the Port City for a pair of appearances this weekend.

First he’ll front the Punch Brothers – a very unconventional bluegrass band that’s been selling out major concert halls – on Friday for Portland Ovations. Two days later he’ll be the featured soloist on the PSO’s third Classical Sundays concert. Thile has also written the featured work, a three-movement mandolin concerto.

The Choral Art Society and Portland Ballet are collaborating on another big work, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem.

We all know that the compass needle always points north. But it doesn’t point to true north, and that conundrum provides the starting point for “Magnetic North,” a fine drama that runs through this weekend at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn.

Punch Brothers

A bluegrass band playing major concert halls? It hardly ever happens, but one of those happenings takes place this Friday when Punch Brothers appears at Merrill Auditorium under the aegis of Portland Ovations.

What’s the story? To begin with, Punch Brothers isn’t totally a bluegrass band. Although the five guys play plenty of bluegrass and have extensive experience in that genre, Punch Brothers’ specialty is taking the basic bluegrass instrumental lineup – mandolin, guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass – into distant artistic realms such as jazz and classical.

It’s fronted by Chris Thile, an extraordinary mandolin virtuoso and composer who is best known for his 15 years with Nickel Creek, a wildly popular band that sold 2 million CDs and copped a Grammy Award in 2002.

Widely regarded as one of the most intriguing and inventive musicians of today, Thile has elevated the mandolin from its origins as a relatively simple folk and bluegrass instrument to the sophistication and brilliance of the finest jazz improvisation and classical performance.

Add cross-genre composition to Thile’s credentials. A sterling example is a four-movement chamber suite that earned a Grammy nomination. Punch Brothers debuted the piece three years ago at a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall as part of the In Your Ear festival.

Thile’s fellows are equally at home with multiple genres and new and unconventional settings of older styles. Bassist Paul Kowert and guitarist Chris Eldridge are both classically trained conservatory graduates, while fiddler Gabe Witcher and banjo player Noam Pikelny are leaders in the “New Grass” field.

Portland Ovations presents Punch Brothers at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall at 8 p.m. March 26. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Want to hear some more of Chris Thile? Two days after his Punch Brothers performance, Thile returns to Merrill Auditorium as the feature artist and featured composer with the Portland Symphony Orchestra for the third in its Classical Sundays series.

Thile has composed a three-movement concerto for mandolin and orchestra, which will conclude the program. Thile’s Mandolin Concerto is a PSO co-commission. Six other orchestras around the country have collaborated on this unconventional joint venture, which offers the promise of becoming a new paradigm in new orchestral music for the 21st century.

Although Moody had a hand in putting the consortium together and engaging Thile, he won’t be conducting this Sunday’s concert. That honor goes to guest maestro Scott Terrell, recently named as music director of the Lexington (Ky.) Symphony.

Two other works start Sunday’s program. First is Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring Suite,” one of the most popular American compositions of the 20th century. It’s especially notable for recycling the melody of 19th-century Shaker hymn. The middle piece is Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” a landmark of early 20th-century European composition.

Catch the Portland Symphony Orchestra at 2:30 p.m. March 28 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Choral Art Society

Choruses are ensembles of singers and ballet troupes comprise corps of dancers, and seldom the twain shall meet. That’s the conventional wisdom at least, but the artistic walls separating these two very different genres will fall on Tuesday, March 30, when the Choral Art Society and Portland Ballet team up for a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem.

This intriguing event will feature the world premier of new choreography, and performers include the Choral Art Society, Portland Ballet Company and musicians from the Portland Symphony Orchestra. The dancers embody the emotion of the piece, its sense of grief, resurrection and hope. The Requiem celebrates the beauty and strength of life, and the power of belief in the face of death. The dance will visually enhance the majesty and spirituality of the music.

“Our joint performance of Mozart’s Requiem with the Choral Art Society will be a truly extraordinary experience for audience members,” notes Eugenia O’Brien, artistic director of Portland Ballet.

Catch this unconventional presentation of Mozart’s Requiem at 7:30 p.m. March 30 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Magnetic North’

Mariners have known for centuries that the compass needle doesn’t indicate true north – the geographic North Pole and the earth’s axis of rotation. Instead it points to an otherwise unremarkable spot on a remote Canadian island in the Arctic Ocean known as the Magnetic North Pole.

The variation between the two – about 17 degrees here in Maine – is known as compass deviation. The metaphorical and moral equivalent of that concept is the big idea behind “Magnetic North,” a fine drama that opened this past weekend at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn.

William Donnelly’s play won the 2006 Clauder Competition for New England playwrights. It revolves around a romantic triangle comprising a married couple and the husband’s former girlfriend. The couple are still trying to recover from the emotional trauma of a miscarriage when the husband’s chance discovery of his old flame’s e-mail address leads to a meeting, which in turn leads to complications. The situation is further exacerbated by one of his fellow workers.

I saw this play opening weekend and was impressed by the skill of the writer and the quality of this fully professional production, which is directed by Chris Schario, longtime head honcho of The Public Theatre. It’s well worth the effort navigating to Lewiston for “Magnetic North.” But don’t follow your compass; use a road map or GPS.

The Pubic Theater, corner of Maple and Lisbon in Lewiston, presents “Magnetic North” through March 28 with performances at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 782-3200.

Sidebar Elements

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile will appear twice this weekend, once for Portland Ovations and once for the Portland Symphony Orchestra.