Out & About: Christmas concerts, Jewish drama

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The holiday season continues on the arts and entertainment front, with interesting Christmas concerts slated for this weekend and an intriguing Jewish drama playing in Westbrook.

Two choral concerts are scheduled for Saturday. Mid-afternoon in South Portland is the annual holiday performance of Musica de Filia – “daughters of music.” Led by Jaye Churchill, Musica de Filia embraces girls from second grade through adult women.

The Freeport Community Chorus gives two performances of its annual holiday program this weekend. The first is on Saturday in Freeport, with the program repeated Sunday in Yarmouth.

On Dec. 13, St. Mary Schola, one of Maine’s few early music ensembles, performs its annual Christmas concert in Portland.

In the drama department, Acorn Productions has mounted the world premiere of “The Wandering Beggar,” a specially commissioned stage adaptation and translation of classic Yiddish tales about a pious Jewish mendicant in 19th-century Russia.

Musica de Filia

For more than a dozen years our region’s cultural landscape has been enriched by Musica de Filia, an organization that is entirely devoted to female voices directed by Jaye Churchill, a professionally trained singer and graduate of the University of Southern Maine School of Music.

For some years in the 1990s, Churchill directed the Boy Singers of Maine. When she sensed a desire for a parallel ensemble of girls, she took the initiative and started it herself.

Musica de Filia is an auditioned training and performance program that includes five separate choral sub-units. These begin with girls in second and third grades and progress to the Women’s Choir, which is open to ages 18 and older.

This year’s 13th annual holiday concert will feature all five ensembles. Perhaps the most intriguing single item on the program will be Colin Britt’s contemporary setting of “There Is No Rose,” a 15th-century poem from the Trinity College Library in England. The composer is the son of Susan Britt, a member of the Women’s Choir.

“It’s quite rich and quite complicated and very beautiful,” says Churchill. “It’s one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever done with the Women’s Choir.”

Catch Musica de Filia’s holiday concert at 2 p.m. Dec. 10 at the South Portland Auditorium, 637 Highland Ave. Call 807-2158.

Greater Freeport Community Chorus

Christmas is a beloved time for people who love choral music, both from the point of view of the singers and the listeners. Among the former are the members of the Greater Freeport Community Chorus, who have been performing Christmas concerts since 1994. This year’s Christmas program will be given twice under artistic director Virgil Bozeman.

“Our music is a blend of serious and fun pieces and audiences can tell how much fun our members are having when they attend our concerts,” member Sandy Banas  said.

“Our program has a holiday theme, but the music is varied. We begin with Josef Rheinberger’s ‘Abendlied’ (‘Evensong’) and Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘How Lovely are the Messengers.’ In addition to three lovely Christmas carols by composer, John Rutter, is Rutter’s exciting and fun tune, ‘Good Ale.’”

Rutter is perhaps the most popular 20th-century composer of choral music. “His music, characterized by inventive melody and well-crafted arrangements, indicates a keen sense of what human voices to best and love most,” Bozeman explained.

Another intriguing piece is Stephen Chatman’s “Blow, Blow the Winter Wind,” a setting of a text excerpted from William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Two performances are planned. First is Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Jude Church, 134 Main St. in Freeport. The concert repeats Dec. 11 at 2:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart Church, 326 Main St. in Yarmouth. Call the chorus at 751-6301.

St. Mary Schola

Early music, defined roughly as compositions dating from before the 18th century, is a wonderful special branch of classical music. But regrettably there are few practitioners in Maine.

One happy exception to that generality is St. Mary Schola, an ensemble of 20 professional singers and instrumentalists based in Falmouth. Most ensemble members have formal classical training and several teach music in various schools and venues.

On Dec. 13 they’ll give their annual Christmas concert in Portland. Titled, “Prepare the Way,” the concert will artistically journey to England, France and Germany. Director Bruce Fithian, a professor of music at the University of Southern Maine, has selected a program that includes composers Heinrich Schutz, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

French Christmas carols of the 17th century, English Advent music from the Renaissance and German Baroque music composed for the Emperor in Dresden will be interspersed with text readings appropriate to the Advent season and the period of the music.

St. Mary Schola Early Music Ensemble will perform “Prepare the Way” at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St., Portland on Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

‘The Wandering Beggar’

Acorn Productions, a professional theater company based in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, is observing Hanukkah by instituting an annual series of plays on Jewish themes.

This year’s choice is the world premiere of “The Wandering Beggar,” a series of dramatic sketches that were specially commissioned by Acorn impresario Mike Levine, one of the most active members of Maine’s theatrical community.

The inspiration came from director Harlan Baker, who fondly recalled a Yiddish language book written about a fictional beggar in 19th-century Russia by Solomon Simon, published in the 1930s. With the assistance of the author’s son, the stage script was penned by Howard Rosenfield of Brunswick.

The story line is minimal. In the opening scene, “Simple Shmerel” is sent “into the world” to beg bread and lodging from kind-hearted folks. Each subsequent scene is a vignette depicting the character’s interaction with lowly townspeople, wealthy tradesmen and haughty princes.

In each case, Shmerel’s naive wisdom proves superior to his social and economic betters, and his simple faith in God’s goodness makes a positive mark wherever he travels.

The early episodes are light and humorous, but the drama turns serious in the second act when Shmerel confronts the deadly pogroms of Czarist Russia – and successfully challenges the perpetrators.

I liked Hal Cohen in the title role. His grizzled beard, rough manners and ragged clothing contrast with a gem of a human being whose simple goodness shines through the dross. He’s supported by a cast of 11, directed by Baker.

The “Wandering Beggar” runs through Dec. 16 at Acorn Studio Theatre, located in the Dana Warp Mill, 75 Bridge St. in Westbrook, with 7:30 p.m. performances Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call 854-0065.

Sidebar Elements

A pious mendicant (Hal Cohen) confronts a learned rabbi (David Handwerker) in “The Wandering Beggar,” running through Dec. 16 at Acorn Studio Theatre in Westbrook.