Out & About: Celebrating Christmas in music, dance

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The headlong rush toward Christmas picks up speed as Dec. 25 approaches. This week’s picks of the tix includes four outstanding celebrations of Christmas, each uniquely expressed in music and dance.

The biggest production and top box-office draw is the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual Magic of Christmas concerts. PSO Maestro Robert Moody has planned and executed a program that takes the show to new heights – quite literally.

Renaissance Voices has another unique Christmas program in Portland, featuring choral works spanning five centuries.

Christmas with Cornils is another annual Portland concert and a personal favorite. Maestro Ray Cornils has invited several guest artists, but the centerpiece of the show is as always the Mighty Kotzschmar Memorial Organ.

Portland Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” has its signature local twist. The familiar ballet is re-imagined as taking place in the city’s Victoria Mansion.

Magic of Christmas

Angels we have heard on high. And acrobats we have seen on high.

That’s a quick summary of Portland Symphony Orchestra’s newest (and 32nd) edition of its immensely popular Magic of Christmas concerts, which wrap up a two-weekend run with six performances Dec. 16-18.

As with anything so successful, keeping the concept fresh and interesting is always a challenge, and PSO maestro Robert Moody has responded this year by inviting a pair of acrobats – who perform under the Cirque de la Symphonie moniker – to fly high above the stage and the first few rows of seats during two of the numbers.

Alexander Fedortchev and Shana Lord are mesmerizing performers with vast experience flying over orchestras around the world, but I certainly wondered whether they really belong in Magic of Christmas – or whether they’re simply an irrelevant element added solely for visual spectacle.

The other elements of the production were familiar, particularly the 80-voice Magic of Christmas Chorus, directed by Richard Nickerson. Additional vocal power was provided by the Bowdoin College Longfellows, a close-harmony a cappella male chorus. (For this coming weekend’s performances, the Maine Steiners, a similar ensemble from Orono, will assume this role.)

My favorite moments of the show were the big orchestral pieces. The first was a Christmas medley by Leroy Anderson, the great 20th-century Boston Pops composer and arranger. Anderson is also represented by “Sleigh Ride,” one of the two most enduring elements of the program.

The other is “Hallelujah Chorus,” from George Frideric Handel’s monumental oratorio, “Messiah.” The Longfellows performed another excerpt from “Messiah,” the well-known aria called “Unto Us A Child Is Born.” I found their a cappella version rather startling.

“Rocket Sleigh” is a pleasant tune written by Maine native Delvyn Case; it was performed by the orchestra with visual stimulus provided by a group of Santa’s elves (the Longfellows in costume) plus the two acrobats.

Portland Symphony Orchestra presents Magic of Christmas six times at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: Dec. 16 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 17 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 18 at 1 and 5 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Christmas with Renaissance Voices

Drawing inspiration and aesthetic values from the past, Renaissance Voices boasts one of the most distinctive annual Christmas concerts in southern Maine. When I attended for the first time a couple of years ago, I was tremendously impressed by the ensemble’s vocal power and inventive programming. Two performances are scheduled this weekend at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland.

Renaissance Voices is a 21-member ensemble that was formed 18 years ago by a group of Maine singers on tour in Europe. The group performs primarily a cappella, with a repertory that ranges from the medieval period to present times. Although primarily focused on their namesake period, Renaissance Voices also has a stated mission of promoting women composers.

This year’s program will feature Abbie Betinis, a contemporary composer from Minneapolis who specializes in choral works and has written many Christmas pieces.

Since 2000 the ensemble has been under the baton of Harold Stover, a Juilliard School-trained organist who’s best known in Portland as the music director at Woodfords Church.

There are two performances of Christmas with Renaissance Voices: Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 18 at 2 p.m. at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland. Visit renaissancevoices.net.

Christmas with Cornils

One of Portland’s favorite musical traditions, and a personal favorite of mine, is the annual celebration that highlights the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, the 6,800-plus-pipe pride of Portland since 1912. Called Christmas with Cornils, the concert is organized by Ray Cornils, the city’s official organist.

The upcoming performance will be the last of this wonderful Christmas classic for a while. The mighty instrument will be disassembled for a year-long renovation and rehabilitation next year.

Cornils is a music professor at two local colleges; his time-tested concert recipe is a varied selection of Christmas and holiday classics. The concert is sponsored by Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, and Cornils brings along many of his musical friends and colleagues.

The evening also features performances by the Kotzschmar Festival Brass, mostly comprising music professors at the University of Southern Maine School of Music, and the Parish Ringers, a handbell choir that Cornils directs. Baritone Aaron Engebreth and the Choral Art Camerata will add vocal power this year.

Catch “Christmas With Cornils” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Victorian Nutcracker’

The dreams of a child mysteriously and beautifully morph into one of the Christmas season’s most joyful creations of music and dance. We’re talking about “The Nutcracker” ballet, where a 10-year-old girl receives an unusual gift – a miniature nutcracker in the form of a colorfully uniformed soldier – then falls asleep and imagines that her toy comes to life.

It debuted in Russia in 1892 and has become one of the Christmas season’s most popular artistic events. The production that’s coming up in Merrill Auditorium Dec. 23 adds another layer of fantasy: The setting is Portland’s own Victoria Mansion, the imposing Italianate edifice on Danforth Street.

That’s the quick take on Portland Ballet’s annual “Victorian Nutcracker,” a unique production in which the first is act is re-imagined as a Port City family affair circa 1892.

The second act – the familiar exotic foreign dances and the penultimate pas de deux – is the traditional “Nutcracker,” but the setting is the mansion’s grand drawing room.

There are two Dec. 23 performances in Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

“Arabian Coffee” is one of the famous scenes from the Palace of Sweets in “The Nutcracker,” to be presented twice on Dec. 23 at Merrill Auditorium.