Out & About: ‘Magic of Christmas’ and other music

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Early December’s air is filled with music. Not surprisingly, most of it relates to Christmas. But much does not.

Under the first rubric, the Portland Symphony Orchestra has scheduled 12 performances of “Magic of Christmas,” its annual holiday special concert series. It will also mark maestro Robert Moody’s final “Magic” program.

St. Mary Schola is a superb early classical music group from southern Maine that combines vocal excellence with instrumental prowess. The ensemble’s annual Christmas program is slated for three performances in three different greater Portland venues, beginning Dec. 8.

Americana fans have plenty to cheer about this weekend as two acts motor into Portland. Jenni Lyn Gardner, best-known as a founding member of Della Mae, an all-female foursome, introduces an independent recording project. Then Driftwood, another acoustic foursome from upstate New York, drifts into town the following evening.

‘Magic of Christmas’

The Portland Symphony Orchestra likes to call itself “the biggest band in town,” and when it morphs into Pops! mode every December, it draws the biggest attendance numbers of the holiday season with “Magic of Christmas.”

Combining both sacred and secular Christmas music with a selection of traditional carols, popular favorites and light classical pieces appropriate to the season, “Magic of Christmas” will be performed 12 times over the next two weekends. About 20,000 people are expected to attend. Many of these are multi-generation families.

The 2017 edition of “Magic” will also be the last for maestro Robert Moody, who will be leaving at the end of the 2017-2018 season. A new face will be Nicolas Alberto Dosman, a University of Southern Maine music professor who directs the 100-voice Magic of Christmas Chorus.

Moody has invited a pair of women singers as guest artists: Suzanne Nance, fondly remembered for her years as a Maine Public Radio classical music radio host, and Susie Pepper, a Portland jazz singer who fronts Mixology plus her own eponymous quartet.

Two “Magic” items are annual mainstays: “Hallelujah Chorus” from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” and Leroy Anderson’s playful and humorous “Sleigh Ride.”

Twelve performances are slated for Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: Dec. 8-9 and 15-16 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 10 and 17 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

St. Mary Schola

St. Mary Schola is far smaller in size and scope, but highly focused on one particular branch of the classical canon – music that dates between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. Numbering two dozen musicians – 10 instrumentalists and 14 singers, the Schola is led by Bruce Fithian, who is the organist and choir director at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth. He is also a professor of music at the University of Southern Maine.

The Schola performs several programs in southern Maine each year. Best attended is the annual Christmas program, this year titled “Christmas Pastoral.” Fithian’s program combines songs and scriptural readings from England, France, Italy, Germany and Austria.

I’ve attended quite a few Schola concerts over the years and I’m always impressed by the ensemble’s excellent selections as well as the vocal excellence and instrumental prowess.

Three performances are scheduled for 2017: Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland; Dec. 10 at 4 p.m. at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 43 Foreside Road in Falmouth; and Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St. in Portland. Visit StMarySchola.org.

Jenni Lyn Gardner

Since 2009, the four-female bluegrass band known as Della Mae has been making waves and drawing audiences to music festivals and other venues that specialize in Americana. Now one of Della Mae’s original members is working on a side project, and she’ll be promoting it in Portland on Friday.

Jenni Lyn Gardner grew up in the south in a musical family, where she learned to play mandolin, guitar and banjo. She’s also a fine singer and songwriter, and her new recording reflects her talents in all areas.

“Burn Another Candle” is the title of her debut solo CD, and it’s also the title of one of the most compelling of her songs, which playfully and melodically celebrates falling in love. “I Only Turned You Down” is another gem, which describes a lover’s regret for initiating a breakup some time in the past and expresses her hope to rekindle the romance. I’ve spun both these tunes plus a few others on Bandcamp, and I’ve reserved my tickets for Friday.

Sam Bush, newgrass pioneer and fellow mandolin ace, is also a fan. She “has one foot planted deep in tradition and the other bound for uncharted territory,” explains Bush. “Her first solo album, ‘Burn Another Candle,’ brings us songs from bluegrass, newgrass, old time and an original gospel number from her youth. These songs and performances touch on today’s issues yet recall a time of sweet ice tea, fresh tomatoes, triple fiddles and that ‘high lonesome sound.’”

Catch Jenni Lyn Gardner at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland, Call 761-1757,

Driftwood

The following evening at One Longfellow Square showcases Driftwood, an Americana group from Binghamton, New York who has been playing and traveling together since 2005. This foursome’s instrumentation is typical bluegrass – guitar, banjo, fiddle and stand-up bass – but Driftwood’s approach to songwriting and performance sets the group apart.

Driftwood’s three men and one woman like to innovate by blurring and blending genre boundaries. They perform on old-time instruments, but they play with a punk-rock ethos.

Describing the foursome’s approach, banjo player Joe Kollar explains, “I consider our sound to be more of an attitude and an approach – the result of all of our influences in a completely open musical forum where the only stipulation is to use bluegrass instruments and create it from the heart.”

In the fall of 2016 Driftwood released its latest CD, titled “City Lights.” Reviewing for Elmore Magazine, Jim Hynes further elaborated:

“The fiddles, banjos and acoustic guitar usually mean bluegrass, but this band makes that sound much more interesting as they approach it with a punk-rock attitude that embraces country and rock ‘n’ roll. Their harmonies bring rushes of excitement to these songs, and it’s clear that Driftwood plays with exultant joy that is undeniably rooted in their aggressive touring schedule.”

Catch Driftwood at 8 p.m. Dec. 9 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Jenni Lyn Gardner, best known as a founding member of the Della Mae foursome, performs this Friday in Portland, promoting her independent recording project.

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