Out & About: Choral celebrations of Christmas

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The first weekend in December marks the second weekend of the long celebration of Christmas in the performing arts. Three such programs are slated between Friday and Sunday; two of them are big choral concerts with multiple performances.

First off will be the Portland Community Chorus. Performing Friday and Saturday in South Portland, the 130-voice ensemble will tackle a variety of traditional and modern carols and seasonal songs.

ChoralArt’s annual Christmas at the Cathedral follows, with four concerts scheduled for Saturday and Sunday in Portland. Special guest artists include the Portland Brass Quintet.

On a much more intimate scale, the Heather Pierson Trio will perform Vince Guaraldi’s entire score from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a classic CBS television show from 1965.

Portland String Quartet continues its 2016-2017 season on Sunday with a varied program of classical chamber music that includes several novel features plus guest violist Jesus Alfonzo, who hails from Venezuela.

Portland Community Chorus

First among the big choral concerts this weekend will be Friday and Saturday performances by the Portland Community Chorus, a 130-voice ensemble under the baton of Rob Westerberg. And if the PCC voices aren’t enough, a few hundred audience voices will be added during the Christmas carol sing-along.

Boasting a master’s degree in choral conducting from the University of Maine, Westerberg also directs the music program at York High School and and has served as president of the Maine Music Educators Association.

Westerberg’s program opens with one of the most identifiable 19th-century carols in the English language, “Once in Royal David’s City,” a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander set to music by Henry David Gauntlett, is the traditional opening of the world-renowned “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” at the King’s College (Cambridge University) Chapel, a service that is broadcast in many countries every year and serves as a model for other similar events.

Following will be a set of seven carols in the English choral tradition, and one very large work, a setting of “Gloria” by contemporary American composer Randol Bass, originally composed in 1990 for Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops Orchestra. Bass is still active, and sees as one of his main tasks in life the furthering of non-musicians’ understanding and appreciation of the musical arts.

An audience sing-along follows intermission, and the concert concludes with a selection of popular modern Christmas songs, such as Mel Torme’s “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” The final song will be “Take Me to the Water,” an African-American spiritual that dates to the time of slavery.

Two performances are slated for South Portland High School, 637 Highland Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 and 2 p.m. Dec. 3. Call 370-5320.

Christmas at the Cathedral

The next big choral program comes from ChoralArt, a 45-year-old ensemble under the baton of Robert Russell, the longtime professor at the University of Southern Maine School of Music. For the past 28 years, ChoralArt (formerly known as Choral Art Society) has produced Christmas at the Cathedral, a very traditional concert in collaboration with the Portland Brass Quintet. Voices, organ and brass combine to offer a glorious introduction to the holiday season.

The repertoire ranges from medieval to modern, with an emphasis on liturgical works. There are several fixed elements from year to year, most notably the finale, which involves the chorus members holding candles, surrounding the audience and singing “Silent Night.”

According to Russell, this year’s edition will also feature the premiere performance of Travis Ramsey’s radiant “On The Night You Were Born.” In a notable solo, Molly Harmon will sing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ethereal “Vocalise.”

Four performances are scheduled for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St. in Portland: Dec. 3 at noon and 8 p.m., and Dec. 4 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Call 828-0043.

Heather Pierson Jazz Trio

The comic strip “Peanuts” was the most successful in the history of cartoons, with reruns continuing 16 years after Charles Schulz’s final original. Among the many “Peanuts” legacies and spin-offs is an annual rerun of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the 1965 animated television musical, with jazz score by Vince Guaraldi.

It involves the whole “Peanuts” cast, including Lucy, Linus, Sally and Snoopy. Guaraldi’s jazz riffs are trademarks of the show.

Guaraldi’s score has taken on a life of its own, with the original recording selling 4 million copies. In Maine and New Hampshire, the Heather Pierson Jazz Trio has found success performing the music, and in recent years a Portland show has been a given.

Pierson, who hails from Conway, New Hampshire, is a musician with a broad palette of talents in several formats. Her jazz trio comprises herself on piano, Shawn Nadeau on bass and Craig Bryan on drums. The group will perform the entirety of the Charlie Brown Christmas album as recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, as well as other well-known and popular Christmas plus a few not-so-Christmas tunes.

Catch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at 8 p.m. Dec. 2 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Portland String Quartet

Three seldom-heard pieces will be featured on this Sunday’s concert by the Portland String Quartet, which has been a fixture on the Maine music scene since 1969.

William Grant Still’s “Lyric Quartette” will open the concert. Still is typically dubbed “the dean of African-American composers,” but his chamber works are not typically programmed nowadays. This work, which dates from 1960, was the composer’s only foray into the string quartet format. I heard it this past June at one of the PSQ’s summertime events, and loved it.

Giuseppe Verdi, celebrated for his many grand operas, was another composer who wrote only one string quartet. The PSQ will perform it as the second work on Sunday’s program.

Concluding will be a third rarity: a viola quintet. In terms of format, it’s similar to a string quartet but with an added viola part, which enriches the middle tones of the piece. Johannes Brahms only wrote one of these, and it will be Sunday’s concluding work. Joining the PSQ will be guest violist Jesus Alfonzo, from Caracas, Venezuela. Some decades ago, the PSQ helped launch a chamber music program in that Latin American country, and Alfonzo was one of the artists who was there at the beginning and has helped to keep it going to the present.

Catch the Portland String Quartet a 2 p.m. Dec. 4 at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call the LARK Society at 761-1522.

Heather Pierson will lead a performance of Vince Guaraldi’s entire score from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the beloved 1965 CBS television classic, in Portland this Friday.

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