Out & About: Icons of American musical theater

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Two very different evenings of musical theater, one in Portland and one in Gorham, top my personal preferences over the next week. The first happens Friday, when Portland Ovations presents George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” one of America’s few true masterpieces of opera.

Then on April 8, the University of Southern Maine School of Music presents an evening devoted entirely to Stephen Sondheim, modern America’s most diversely talented composer and lyricist.

Portland Symphony Orchestra has slated two guest artists for its April 6 concert. Visiting conductor Alfred Savia will mount the podium and conduct four works, including a Maine premiere. Guest performer will be percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

Portland Ovations wraps up its classical offerings for 2009-2010 on April 8 with Stefan Jackiw, a 24-year-old virtuoso violinist who is already making a mark on the world music scene.

‘Porgy and Bess’

George Gershwin was the most important figure in American musical theater in the 1920s and 1930s, boasting many successful Broadway shows and dozens of popular songs. He was also famous for his supersized ego. But anybody who sees his masterpiece, “Porgy and Bess,” will understand.

Gershwin conceived “Porgy and Bess” as a folk opera that depicts African-Americans and tells a story in modern musical idioms, particularly jazz and the blues. First produced in 1935, this rough-and-tumble depiction of life and love on Catfish Row, a black slum in Charleston, S.C., was based on a novel and stage play by DuBose Heyward, who also wrote the libretto.

The show’s most famous number is “Summertime,” which has been covered hundreds of times by diverse artists and has achieved its own legendary popularity far beyond its original context. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (lyric by Ira Gershwin, brother of the composer) and “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” are two other songs that achieved renown outside the theater.

“Porgy and Bess” is currently produced by Living Arts, a New York-based professional company that’s been touring the show since 1993 and has visited Portland once before. The 2010 edition checks into Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall for one 8 p.m. performance, hosted by Portland Ovations. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sondheim birthday bash

Stephen Sondheim’s lifetime in musical theater goes back to the 1940s, when he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II, and his first professional success dates from the late 1950s, when he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” two of Broadway’s biggest hits of that decade. His succession of Broadway musical accelerated through the 1960s, when Sondheim started composing the scores for his shows.

Sondheim marks his 80th birthday in 2010, and the University of Southern Maine School of Music and its Theater Department are collaborating on a celebration under the direction of adjunct professor Ed Reichert.

“Stephen Sondheim is no doubt, the greatest living composer of American Musical Theater today,” Reichert says. “From his early contributions as lyricist on ‘Gypsy’ and ‘West Side Story,’ to his most popular and often produced musicals, ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Sweeney Todd,’ Sondheim’s voice has always been unique and true to itself. He has transformed the genre with his complex yet compelling music, and his witty and heartbreaking lyrics.”

Songs will be performed from more than a dozen musicals that Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics for, including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Follies,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Assassins,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Into The Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Company” and “Bounce.”

Current musical theater majors will be joined by more than a dozen singers from the USM Opera Workshop to celebrate more than 50 years of Sondheim’s genius. Joining them as special guests are several professionals – former musical theater majors plus six members of the school’s voice faculty.

The program will also include several numbers by other composers. Ten years ago Sondheim gave critic Frank Rich of The New York Times a list of 52 songs he “wished he had written.” Reichert has selected several of these.

The show is slated for 7:30 p.m. April 8 at Corthell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Call the music box office at 780-5555.

Portland Symphony

The most famous percussionist in classical music will be the guest performer at the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s April 6 concert. Evelyn Glennie, a Scottish-born virtuoso and specialist in the many-faceted percussion section, will be featured in several pieces.

Glennie is the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist. She plays more than 100 concerts a year worldwide, performing with top-notch conductors, orchestras and artists. By combining superb technique, a profound appreciation of visual aspects and astonishing musicality, Glennie is anchors performances of incredible vitality.

The PSO will perform under the baton of a visiting conductor, Alfred Savia, who has headed up several orchestras of his own and frequently appears as guest around the globe. One of Savia’s selections is the Maine premiere of Joseph Schwantner’s “Chasing Light …”

This piece, composed for orchestra and wind ensemble, was specially commissioned for a consortium of 65 symphonies representing small and mid-sized U.S. cities. The program, now in its second year, is underwritten by the Ford Foundation, and aims to make major new works of American orchestral music affordable for organizations like the PSO.

Catch the highly percussive Portland Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. April 6 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Stefan Jackiw

Portland Ovations has another globetrotting virtuoso coming to town two day later, presenting violinist Stefan Jackiw in recital on April 8. Only 24 years old, Jackiw ranks as one of his generation’s most significant violinists. He’ll play a program entirely devoted to Johannes Brahms, accompanied by pianist Max Levinson.

Jackiw has been a notable performer on the world stage since he was 14 years old. He has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony and the Russian National Orchestra – all within the last year. Jackiw recently released his debut album of Brahms Sonatas on the Sony Classical label.

Three Brahms Sonatas are scheduled for this recital: Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Sonata No. 2 in A Major and Sonata No. 3 in D Minor.

Portland Ovations presents Stefan Jackiw at 7:30 p.m. April 8 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

“Porgy and Bess,” George Gershwin’s famous folk opera, is a rough-and-tumble depiction of life and love on Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C. A touring company performs April 2 in Portland.