Out & About: Early music festival, Josh Ritter

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There’s a variety of music playing in Portland and vicinity this weekend, headlined by two disparate acts in widely separated parts of town.

Out in the Woodford’s Corner neighborhood, the Portland Conservatory of Music is hosting its annual three-day Portland Early Music Festival Friday through Sunday.

Josh Ritter, a powerful Americana act, will appear downtown at the State Theatre on Saturday. His current tour is in support of “Gathering,” an album he released last month.

At the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus, this weekend there’s a rare opportunity to see a seldom-produced Broadway classic, “Of Thee I Sing.”

In Lewiston, the Public Theatre is running a real mash-up comedy with dark political overtones. “The Revolutionists,” which runs through Sunday, has loads of laughs plus three on-stage beheadings.

Portland Early Music Festival

For the past 21 years, the Portland Conservatory of Music has been a powerful force in teaching and performance of classical music and jazz in southern Maine. First established in the downtown area, the conservatory is now in the Woodford’s Corner neighborhood. (It still maintains a downtown presence via its longstanding series of Thursday noontime faculty concerts, which are free to the public.)

For the past six years, PCM has presented a weekend of “early music,” typically defined as European classical music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Historically speaking, this was an important period of innovation. Modern instruments were unknown, but their antecedents were developing in multiple directions. The church was no longer the dominant patron of music, and secular works were gaining widespread popularity.

This weekend the Portland Early Music Festival presents three days of public performances by conservatory faculty and guests. Artistic director is Timothy Burris, a virtuoso on the lute – an early version of today’s guitar – and a music scholar of considerable repute. He has performed around the world and taught six years in Holland. Burris speaks six European languages, and his doctoral research was conducted in Germany. In addition to leading the conservatory’s early music program, Burris also teaches at Colby College.

For 2017, Burris has planned a three-concert program that emphasizes different themes and approaches. Friday’s performance showcases music of 17th century England, with works of five composers performed by seven instrumentalists, including himself.

Saturday’s concert highlights improvised vocal works with two tenors accompanied by harpsichord and cello. Burris describes this concert as “a Baroque jazz club on a Saturday night,” hastening to add: “We use the term ‘jazz’ figuratively, to designate a style that includes, in the case of the soloists, vocal improvisation on top of a basic melodic structure or skeleton. In the case of the accompanists, it includes building harmonies on top of a bass line that supports the vocalists.”

Petra Polackova is a Czech guitar virtuoso who will be the featured guest artist on Sunday. She will perform several works of the 18th century transcribed for her early 19th-century guitar.

All concerts take place in the chapel at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. The Friday and Saturday performances are slated for 7:30 p.m.; on Sunday it’s at 4 p.m. A short lecture precedes each concert. Call PCM at 775-3356.

Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter is a man with a broad palette of artistic talents: painter, novelist, poet, composer, guitarist and singer. The latter four will be on display Saturday when Ritter and his Royal City Band appear in concert at downtown Portland’s State Theatre, a stop on an extensive North American tour in support of their latest album, “Gathering,” which was released almost exactly a month ago.

This year marks Ritter’s 20th as a professional musician. His stated genre is “Americana,” which is really no formally defined genre at all, but rather a fusion of multiple American influences which in Ritter’s case embraces country, gospel and soul.

Ritter and his longtime backing foursome have released eight albums since 1999, but “Gathering” marks an artistic turning point in its approach to narration and subject matter. Ritter describes “Gathering” as “a record full of storms.”

I’ve been listening to a few cuts on SoundCloud, and I’m particularly impressed with “When Will I Be Changed,” a powerful and melodic anthem of introspection and self-doubt.

Catch Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band at the State Theatre, 609 Congress St. in downtown Portland at 8 p.m. Oct. 28. Call 956-6000.

‘Of Thee I Sing’

The 1930s represent a particularly fruitful era of American musical theater, celebrated in many books. But unfortunately, very few shows from that era are still produced.

An exemplar of the period is “Of Thee I Sing,” with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and score by George and Ira Gershwin. It satirized American politics in a brisk and tuneful style. The show ran more than a year – a very long run at that time – and won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

A rare production is taking place this weekend as a collaboration of the University of Southern Maine theater department and its School of Music. Director is faculty member Ed Reichert, an inspired theatrical craftsman I’ve known and admired for close to three decades. Reichert’s cast includes music and theater students, with Kellie Moody leading a 10-piece orchestra.

Three performances are slated for Russell Hall on USM’s Gorham campus: Oct. 27 and 28 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 29 at 2 p.m. Call the Music Box Office at 780-5555.

‘The Revolutionists’

A mash-up comedy with lots of tragic death is the first offering of the 2017-2018 season at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn. The show is “The Revolutionists” a four-woman play by Lauren Gunderson in which a quartet of characters from the French Revolution are re-imagined as contemporary American “badass women.”

Director Chris Schario gets wonderful performances from Janet Mitchko, Shamika Cotton, Sherill Turner and Robyne Parrish. Kudos to Anne Collins’ costuming, which showcases the looks of the late 1700s in Paris.

Gunderson’s script contains a lot of laughs, particularly in the first act, when the four characters are introduced. But the second act is dominated by political posturing and artistic self-congratulation, which don’t appeal to me at all.

Plus three of the women go to the guillotine, which is hidden behind a scrim, then bathed in gory red light for each of the three executions.

The Public Theatre, 31 Maple St. in Lewiston, presents “The Revolutionists” through Oct. 29 with performances Oct. 26-27 at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 28 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Oct. 29 at 2 p.m. Call 782-3200.

“The Revolutionists,” playing through Sunday at the Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn, is a comedy with dark political overtones and three on-stage beheadings.