Out & About: Laura Kargul, Midcoast Symphony top picks

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The University of Southern Maine School of Music has a fall-winter-spring series of superb concerts by faculty and visiting artists, but none is so eagerly anticipated as Laura Kargul’s annual October appearance.

Kargul is a virtuoso pianist who specializes in music of the Romantic period, and for this fall’s outing she’s chosen an intriguing title: “Composers on the Edge.” It’s slated for Friday in Gorham.

The Midcoast Symphony Orchestra opens its 2016-2017 season with a program titled “Resolute Romantics,” which plays in Lewiston on Saturday and Topsham on Sunday.

Actor-playwright John Cariani grew up in Presque Isle and is now a big wheel in New York theatrical circles. His latest play, redolent of Aroostook atmosphere, is titled “Last Gas.” It’s running through Sunday in Lewiston.

Laura Kargul

Each academic year the University of Southern Maine holds about a dozen concerts that feature faculty and visiting artists. By far the most popular is Laura Kargul’s annual solo piano recital, which I’ve attended for more than a decade.

She specializes in music of the Romantic period, and usually selects her program with an eye toward interesting thematic unity. This year’s recital, scheduled for Friday, is titled “Composers on the Edge,” a reflection of her belief that artists at the proverbial cliff of despair sometimes produce their finest work.

“This phenomenon is noted most often among works written by 19th-century Romantic composers, but it spans all periods of classical music,” she says.

The first item on Friday’s program is a sonata by Robert Schumann, an exemplar of the German Romantics. In this piece Schumann attempts to send a message to his beloved, a young piano prodigy whose father disapproved of their prospective marriage and had forbidden the two to meet again.

“The only way for him to communicate his feelings to her was through music,” Kargul notes. “Borrowing themes from a piece she had written earlier he gave himself over to this torrent of all-consuming passion.”

The second item on the program is a keyboard work by Johann Sebastian Bach, written in despair at the departure of his brother.

The concluding showpiece is Maurice Ravel’s notoriously virtuosic “La Valse.” Kargul calls it one of the most difficult works written for piano, not only for its technical challenges but also for the emotional commitment demanded from the performer.

“It’s essentially a 15-minute run-up to one of the wildest, most over-the-top climaxes in the history of classical music, leaving the listener both exhilarated and exhausted by the experience,” she says.

Kargul has directed the piano program at USM for more than a quarter-century. Elsewhere she’s been soloist, chamber musician, adjudicator and master teacher throughout Europe and this country, as well as in Canada and the West Indies. She has garnered rave reviews in venues such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Schleswig-Holstein and Nordhessen Music Festivals in Germany, the Opera Theater and Music Festival of Lucca in Italy and the Evian Music Festival in France.

She is a popular lecturer and locally she is frequently featured on the Portland Ovations Pre-Performance Lecture Series. Her informative comments from the stage – interspersed with deadpan humor – have become a trademark of her performances.

Catch Laura Kargul in concert at 8 p.m. Oct. 21 at Corthell Hall on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus. Call 780-5555.

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra

Music lovers who want another bite from the Romantic apple will head north this weekend, where the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra will launch its 2016-2017 season with a pair of concerts bearing the title “Resolute Romantics.”

The MSO is a 26-year-old community orchestra numbering about 70 under the baton of Rohan Smith, a professional maestro with a long resume of accomplishments. The centerpiece of this season-opener is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, one of the most popular pieces in the history of classical music.

It’s a showpiece, as described by Mary Hunter, an MSO violinist and music professor at Bowdoin College: “If there is a soundtrack for the stereotype of the romantic figure of the star (male) pianist, with his noble profile to the audience, his long hair flung back, women swooning in his presence, and oceans of notes issuing from his long fingers, that soundtrack is this concerto, which is as full of irresistible tunes and compelling pianism as any work in the repertory.”

For the solo honors, Smith has engaged piano virtuoso Jonathan Bass, a professor of music at the Boston Conservatory and a frequent performer with the Boston Symphony.

The second major piece on the program will be Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, a big and expansive work that pays homage to Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony. The concert-opener will be a perennial audience pleaser on orchestral pops programs, the overture to Franz von Suppe’s operetta “Light Cavalry.”

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra presents “Resolute Romantics” twice this weekend: Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Franco American Heritage Center, 46 Cedar St. in Lewiston, and Oct. 23 at 2:30 p.m. at the Orion Performing Arts Center at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham. Call the MSO at 371-2028.

‘Last Gas’

Anti-heroes and twisted relationships are the stuff of John Cariani’s dramatic world. And in two of the three plays that he has written, that offbeat fictional world is set in Aroostook County.

Cariani, who lived in Presque Isle for most of his childhood, rose to fame in 2004 when his first play “Almost, Maine,” became an international hit, translated into 20 languages and produced by more than 2,500 theater companies.

“Last Gas” is his latest effort, and a fine fully professional production runs through Sunday in Lewiston.

The setting is a rural convenience store not far from the Canadian border. The confused and conflicted anti-hero is the 40-year-old proprietor of the store, and he’s romantically torn between two women and one man. The first woman is the mother of his teenage son, while the other is an old flame from high school days. He’s also attached to an overweight truck driver who shares his passion for the Boston Red Sox.

Janet Mitchko gets stellar performances from her fully professional cast of six: Augustus Kelley, Brandon Tyler Harris, Ben Loving, Kurt Zischke, Katharine McLeod and Mary Mossberg.

Jennifer Madigan’s set, authentically recalling Maine’s rural culture, is also outstanding.

The Public Theatre, 31 Maple St. in Lewiston, presents “Last Gas” through Oct. 23 with performances Oct. 20-21 at 7:30 p.m.. Oct. 22 at 3 and 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 23 at 2 p.m. Call 782-3200.

Piano virtuoso Laura Kargul will play a program titled “Composers on the Edge” this Friday in Gorham, part of the University of Southern Maine School of Music’s Faculty Concert Series.