The four weeks of Christmas productions are quickly drawing to a close, but a handful of big events remain on the calendar.
My longtime favorite is “Christmas With Cornils,” a production of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ. Ray Cornils will play Portland’s mighty instrument, joined by a slew of his friends and professional colleagues, on Dec. 22.
Renaissance Voices, an a cappella ensemble that specializes in music of its namesake period, will present its annual Christmas concert twice his weekend in Portland.
Ogunquit Playhouse has mounted a wonderful production of the Broadway version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” which runs through Sunday.
Twenty-six years ago, when Ray Cornils was being interviewed for the position of Portland’s municipal organist, he was asked to suggest some programming ideas to re-establish the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ’s once-lofty place in the city’s cultural life. One of Cornils’ first suggestions was to create an annual Christmas program.
Twenty-six years later, “Christmas With Cornils” remains a vibrant celebration of the Yuletide spirit with the Kotzschmar Organ as the centerpiece, flanked by a stellar crew of Maine musicians. It’s a stellar evening as well, one that I haven’t missed in years.
The star performer is Cornils himself, who also teaches at several Maine colleges and directs the music program at the First Parish Church in Brunswick. He’ll play the mighty Kotzschmar, a gigantic instrument that weighs over 50 tons and boasts more than 6,800 pipes. Originally installed in 1912, the entire machine was dismantled four years ago and totally rebuilt. Now it sounds better than ever.
Also on the program will be three very different ensembles of Maine musicians. The Parish Ringers are a handbell choir from Cornils’ church program. The Oratorio Chorale is a Brunswick-based vocal ensemble. The Kotzschmar Festival Brass comprises half a dozen musicians, mostly members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
Composers represented range from the Baroque to contemporary. The program is divided into seven sub-sections, with self-explanatory titles: “Bells Shall Ring Out the News,” “Carols of Prophecy,” “A Reveler’s Carol,” “Old Carols in New Clothes,” “Christmas Through the Eyes of A Child,” “Christmas in New England” and “Home.”
Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ presents “Christmas With Cornils” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.
Now in its 22nd season, Renaissance Voices is a 20-member a cappella ensemble that performs two programs per year. Best-known is the annual Christmas concert in Portland. I’ve been a regular attendee for half a dozen years and I’ve already reserved my tickets for this one.
Since 2001 the ensemble has been led by Harold Stover, a Juilliard School graduate who is a noted organist, choir director, pedagogue and composer. In addition to presenting works from its namesake period, Renaissance Voices has a longstanding commitment to promoting contemporary women composers. Under Stover’s direction, Renaissance Voices issued its first CD in 2011, titled “In the Ending of the Year.”
Another longstanding practice is to interpolate readings into the program. Some of these are moving recollections of long-past childhood experiences, while others are very humorous – including tales of visiting relatives who overstay their Christmas welcome.
The Renaissance period will be represented this weekend by compositions by Felice Anerio, Heinrich Isaac, Cipriano de Rore and Silviano Marazzi. Pieces written by contemporary women include “Tota Pulchra Es” by Italian composer Angelina Figus, and “Now May We Singen,” by Englishwoman Cecila McDowall. Alessandro Scarlatti and Johannes Brahms are two other well-known composers on the program.
Renaissance Voices performs its Christmas program twice at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland: Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 20 at 2 p.m. Call 729-4958.
Among Hollywood’s many Christmas movies, none strikes the same musical and emotional chords as Irving Berlin’s celebrated 1954 film, “White Christmas,” which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The film has been an indelible element of Christmas in America from the day it opened.
In 2004 the film was adapted to the musical stage, with a San Francisco premiere and a long U.S. national tour preceding its 2008 Broadway debut. The libretto for the stage version (which considerably simplifies the film screenplay) was written by David Ives and Paul Blake. But Berlin’s famous score is lovingly reproduced with almost no changes.
The title song is the most famous excerpt from the film, and Crosby’s single release is still heard around this time of year in many venues. “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep),” “I Love a Piano” and “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” are also among the tuneful songs in the show.
I’ve seen a couple of community productions of “White Christmas” in the past few years, but no professional production has been mounted in this region.
That’s changed for 2015.
Ogunquit Playhouse has created a wonderfully happy, fully professional production that runs through this Sunday. But because the venerable playhouse isn’t insulated or heated, “White Christmas” is being staged in the historic 1878 Music Hall in nearby Portsmouth, N.H., the Granite State’s oldest operating theater.
I’ve seen the film quite a few times, and I attended the opening night of Oqunquit’s production last weekend. I was totally charmed. Ditto my lady friend.
Ogunquit’s executive artistic director Brad Kenney’s team has gone all-out on this lavish show about show-biz. Structurally it’s a double romantic comedy, with the male leads portrayed as a pair of popular nightclub singers who fall in love with two sisters, who also sing in nightclubs. Much of the action takes place at a country inn in rural Vermont.
Joey Sorge and Jeffry Denman have charm and fine voices. Ditto their respective love interests: Kate Loprest and Vanessa Sonon. Sorge was the star of one of this summer’s Ogunquit shows, while Denman originated his role on Broadway and is featured on the original cast recording.
Among the supporting cast, I liked Deborah Jean Templin, playing a former Broadway singer.
Jayme McDaniel directs, with Micah Young doing musical arrangements and leading the pit crew. Costumes and sets, by Carrie Robbins and Anna Louizos respectively, reflect Ogunquit’s passion for perfection.
Ogunquit Playhouse presents Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” at The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St. in downtown Portsmouth, with performances Dec. 15-18 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Dec. 20 at 12 noon and 4:30 p.m. Call 603-436-2400.
Ray Cornils, right, will be joined by the Kotzschmar Festival Brass and other local musicians for the 26th annual production of “Christmas With Cornils” on Dec. 22 in Portland.