As Christmas relentlessly approaches, there are still a few remaining concerts that celebrate the holiday.
Tops in my opinion is “Christmas With Cornils,” an annual production of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ. Cornils, who is celebrating his 25th year as the instrument’s principal player, pulls out all the stops to make memorable Christmas concerts.
Renaissance Voices is a fine acappella ensemble that specializes in early classical music with some significant modern twists. Two performances of Renaissance Voices’ annual Christmas program are slated for Dec. 20-21 in Portland.
Oratorio Chorale has been active since 1974. But surprisingly, 2014 marks the first time the 35-member ensemble is getting into the Christmas spirit. Oratorio Chorale’s inaugural Christmas concert is titled “Sing We Noel,” and it’s scheduled for two Dec. 20 performances in Brunswick.
Looking just past New Year’s, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks, a fine Americana group from Brooklyn, New York, will be visiting Portland on Jan. 3.
The final big performance on Portland’s Yuletide calendar is scheduled for Dec. 23, as the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ presents “Christmas With Cornils.” It’s an annual concert that’s designed to showcase the huge instrument, which boasts nearly 6,900 pipes in eight divisions.
This year’s edition has two extra-special elements. First is the return of the Mighty Kotzschmar after its lengthy rebuilding and re-installation. At a cost of $2.6 million, the Kotzschmar was dismantled in 2012 and spent two years in Connecticut, where the organ was completely cleaned and major parts were rebuilt. Last summer the instrument was re-installed in Merrill Auditorium and is now ready to resume its central role in Maine’s cultural life.
Second is the fact that 2014 marks Ray Cornils’ 25th year as the instrument’s principal artist, a position that’s funded by the Friends. Cornils’ official title is Portland Municipal Organist, and he’s the driving force behind the concert. It was his idea from the get-go, and he keeps it going strong year after year.
The centerpiece of the program is of course the instrument itself. “The Kotzschmar Organ has an immense palette of tones, textures and auditory colors,” Cornils explained. “At times, it’s quiet and gentle and peaceful, but can also be played intensely or heroically.”
Three other musical groups will add to the evening. The Parish Ringers, a handbell choir from Brunswick that Cornils directs, will perform several segments. The Kotzschmar Festival Brass features mostly principal players from the Portland Symphony Orchestra plus a few music professors. Musica de Filia is a southern Maine girls choir, directed by Jaye Churchill.
Cornils and the brass section will open the concert with “Joy to the World,” and I expect the organ will be played and displayed in all its sonic splendor.
The evening progresses through a large selection of traditional Christmas carols and modern classics in celebration of the holiday. The finale will be a selection of carols with the audience invited to sing along.
I’ve attended “Christmas With Cornils” several times in the past, and I’ve already reserved by tickets for this year’s.
One of the most interesting Christmas concerts that I regularly attend is performed every year by Renaissance Voices, a 21-member Portland-based acappella ensemble that specializes in music from its namesake period through the Baroque era.
Plus they have another specialty: music by women composers, especially those from Maine and New England.
This year’s program includes all of the above, plus a work by the ensemble’s music director, Harold Stover, who is best known for his many years playing the organ and directing the choirs at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland. (He’s also a frequent guest at the keyboards of the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ.)
One of the most interesting features of Renaissance Voices’ Christmas program is the short contemporary readings that are interpolated. Some of these are quite funny – holiday plans gone awry, relatives overstaying their welcome, etc. – and totally in keeping with the spirit of the season.
Two performances of Renaissance Voices’ Christmas concert are slated for St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland: 8 p.m. Dec. 20 and 2 p.m. Dec. 21. Call 773-9711.
After four decades and hundreds of performances of nearly 500 works, the Oratorio Chorale still has some new tricks. For the first time the 35-voice fully auditioned ensemble will present a Christmas program, and this inaugural effort will be performed twice this Saturday in Brunswick.
It’s intended to be an annual event, and the prime mover is the ensemble’s music director, Emily Isaacson, now in her second year on the podium. A Brunswick native, Isaacson earned music degrees from schools in Oregon and Edinburgh, Scotland, and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois. She’s currently active with several musical organizations in greater Boston.
Oratorio Chorale’s first Christmas program will include organist John Corrie and a brass quintet. It’s geared toward families, and a cocoa-and-cookies reception will follow. Two performances are slated for the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 27 Pleasant St. in Brunswick: 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Call 577-3931.
Two years ago I attended one of the best (of many, many) concerts I’ve ever heard at One Longfellow Square. It celebrated the release of the first CD by the Brooklyn-based band, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks.
Jazz, blues, country, honky-tonk, swing and 1950s-era rock-n-roll are the principal influences exemplified by Miss Tess, who honed her craft in greater Boston’s thriving alt-country musical milieu. She’s also got a fine backing band, that can rock out like the pioneers of the Elvis Presley-Buddy Holly era with a gracious nod to the influences of western swing.
Her first CD, “Sweet Talk,” featured mostly original material and demonstrated that her clear soprano voice and her deft roots stylings are firmly grounded in tradition and anticipate a great future. Her second CD, “The Love I Have for You,” is currently spinning on my MP3 machine. Surprisingly, it’s mostly covers (with the exception of the title cut), but also demonstrates, by amplifying the power of comparison, that Miss Tess is the proverbial “real thing” on the Americana circuit.
Catch Miss Tess and The Talkbacks at One Longfellow Square (corner of Congress and State in Portland) at 8 p.m. Jan. 3. Call 761-1757.
Ray Cornils will be backed by the Kotzschmar Festival Brass when the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ presents “Christmas With Cornils” Dec. 23 in Portland.