Out & About: ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites,’ plus Americana

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“Dialogues of the Carmelites” is a seldom-performed opera that was written about a decade after World War II ended. Using historical events and thematic elements from the French Revolution, coupled with still-fresh memories of the more recent global conflict, French composer Francois Poulenc crafted a powerful opera that is both beautiful and disturbing. Portland Symphony Orchestra will present a concert version this Sunday.

The Punch Brothers are five bluegrass musicians who are known for re-thinking the established genre of American bluegrass in novel and powerful ways. That’s one approximate description of Americana music. This Brooklyn-based string quintet will appear on Saturday at Portland’s State Theatre.

Two performances by singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle are slated for One Longfellow Square on Saturday. Earle is one of the rising talents in the Americana field.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

The story seems to leap out of today’s news headlines: Sixteen Catholic nuns are beheaded by fanatical revolutionaries. But the story is actually far older, and the circumstances that made it the basis of a powerful modern opera reflect newer horrors of modern times.

That’s a quick take on “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” an opera penned in 1956 by French composer Francois Poulenc. It is rarely seen today as a fully staged production, but the Portland Symphony Orchestra will perform a concert version this Sunday, featuring seven guest soloists and members of the Choral Art Society.

The basis for “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is an historical legal atrocity that dated from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, when 16 members of the Carmel de Compiegne were condemned by a court and executed by guillotine. When the sisters were sent to the scaffold, they sang an invocation of the Holy Spirit – with the number of singers diminishing one by one with each fall of the blade.

A dozen years before the opera was composed, Nazi Germany had committed atrocities on a far vaster scale, and the occupying German forces executed thousands of members of the French Resistance. The historical story of the Carmelites, coupled with memories of recent happenings, provided Poulenc with a powerful platform to construct this opera, which is considered the masterpiece of his late career.

PSO maestro Robert Moody announced this program more than a year ago. The libretto follows a Carmelite novice, who comes from an aristocratic family, and roughly follows actual historical fact.

In addition to his own orchestra, Moody has invited seven guest vocalists to sing the principal parts: five women and two men, plus the Choral Art Society, directed by Robert Russell, will provide additional power.

The leading soloist is Sarah Jane McMahon, who has sung in operas and other concerts throughout this country and Europe. The top-billed male voice is Troy Cook, playing the doomed father of the principal character. Cook, a veteran opera singer, has performed this role before.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra performs Francois Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at 2:30 p.m. March 8 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Expect a very interesting “Concert Conversation” prior to the performance, at 1:15 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Punch Brothers

A bluegrass band that thrives on covers of Beyonce, Radiohead, the Beatles and the Cars? Or a traditional American string band that performs pieces by European classical composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Alexander Scriabin and Claude Debussy?

If the above seems too far-fetched to believe, maybe you should check out the Punch Brothers this Saturday in Portland.

Formed nine years ago in Nashville by mandolin wiz Chris Thile, the Punch Brothers have made waves in the rapidly emerging field of Americana, stretching boundaries and defying easy characterization.

Thile, whose youthful looks defy his 34 years, is enjoying immense popularity these days. He recently guest-hosted “A Prairie Home Companion,” recorded a new album with Nickel Creek (which won a Grammy Award), conducted a seminar on music and culture at Oberlin College and Conservatory and appeared as a guest soloist with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. He is the principal writer for the Punch Brothers’ original tunes.

Besides Thile, the best-known Punch Brother is banjo player Noam Pikelny, who has visited Portland several times on gigs with his own band. Other band members are guitarist Chris Eldridge, fiddler Gabe Witcher and bassist Paul Kowert.

“There’s no doubt that the five musicians are virtuosos,” writes Rolling Stone critic Nancy Dunham. “The genius of Thile and his bandmates … is the artistry with which they mix bluegrass, roots, pop, jazz and classical to create a unique, contemporary sound.”

Together the Punch Brothers have recorded five CDs (some also on vinyl), with the most recent being released six weeks ago. Titled “The Phosphorescent Blues,” it includes interpretations of classical pieces by Scriabin and Debussy.

The new CD’s curious title comes from the phosphorescent blue color projected by smartphone screens in the dark, and several of the songs explore themes of digital disconnection. How is it possible to be lonely and blue while simultaneously connected to a zillion friends?

Catch the Punch Brothers at 8 p.m. March 7 at the State Theatre, 609 Congress St. in Portland. Call 956-6000.

Justin Townes Earle

It would be surprising if Justin Townes Earle didn’t make waves in Americana music. Just look at his father: singer-songwriter-troubadour Steve Earle. Plus there’s his namesake: singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who was his father’s idol.

Now the 33-year-old Earle is a rising talent who is discovering his own voice and creative niche in the musical world of Americana, writing his own material and covering others’. He has seven CDs to his credit. His third, “Midnight at the Movies,” harks back to traditional country music, and won Earle the honor of New and Emerging Artist of the Year” at the 2009 Americana Music Awards.

His latest two albums date from the past six months, and represent Earle’s attempts to come to grips with two of the salient facts of his troubled earlier years. “Single Mothers” was released last September, while its follow-up, “Absent Fathers,” came out in January.

Allmusic reviewer Mark Deming comments that “Absent Fathers” is a collection of powerful tunes and lyrics that represent Earle at his creative zenith. “‘Absent Fathers’ certainly is of a piece with the earlier album, full of songs about busted families, relationships run adrift and lives stuck in neutral,” he writes.

There are two March 7 performances slated at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland: 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

Justin Townes Earle is a rising talent in the field of Americana music who will be giving two performances this Saturday in Portland.