Maine has a very busy summer of classical music festivals, and the first of them opens June 25. The Maine Festival of American Music is in its ninth year, hosted by the Portland String Quartet. The setting is iconically American: The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester.
In keeping with the ongoing observances of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, Maine State Music Theatre is gearing up to reprise “Chamberlain,” the story of our state’s greatest hero in that conflict. Chamberlain’s home in Brunswick is literally across the street from where the show will be presented.
Shaker culture will be spotlighted in several Maine venues this summer, including a major exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, a re-energized Shaker Museum in Alfred and an expanded roster of activities at the historic Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester.
Sabbathday Lake is the only remaining active Shaker community. It was founded in 1783, a few years after the United Society of Believers (the Shakers’ formal name) moved from England to America.
In New Gloucester, the first major event on this summer is the Maine Festival of American Music, four days of concerts, workshops and other programming that is produced by the Portland String Quartet, spearheaded by violist Julia Adams.
This year’s festival, the ninth, runs June 25-28. Shaker culture will be highlighted on two of the four days. I’ve been attending this festival in recent years, and I’ve always been fascinated by the PSQ’s efforts to position its art in unconventional and illuminating contexts. The quartet celebrates the roots and heritage of American music, often by exploring the links between American traditions and European classical music.
This year’s festival begins June 25 with a program that emphasizes the importance of immigration. Brother Arnold Hadd, one of the tiny handful of living Shakers, will speak on the role of immigration in the history of his religion, and the PSQ will perform two major works by composers who were born in Europe and later settled permanently in this country: Fritz Kreisler and Ernest Bloch.
June 26 will be devoted to Shaker songs. Guest artists will be Kevin Siegfried, a professor at the Boston Conservatory, and the Portsmouth Singers. Brother Hadd will speak on the Shaker songs, and a number of examples will be performed. The best-known of these is “Simple Gifts,” which became famous in classical music when Aaron Copland quoted it extensively in the score to “Appalachian Spring.”
Friday is a workshop day, primarily of interest to the two dozen amateur musicians who study all day with quartet members. The culmination of the festival is Saturday’s concert, which will feature two guest artists: Hartt School of Music composition professor Stephen Gryc and oboist Kathleen McNerney, who is best known as half of the popular VentiCordi duo.
The program includes an oboe quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a new work by Gryc and a string quartet by Claude Debussy.
The three public concerts – June 25, 26 and 28 – will take place at 7 p.m. at the Meeting House at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community, Old Route 26 in New Gloucester. Call 926-4597.
Also worth noting: Saturday’s concert will mark the PSQ’s final public performance with its founding cellist, Paul Ross, who announced his retirement a few months ago. The PSQ started up in 1969 and has been a mainstay of our state’s cultural life ever since. Expect to see a number of guest cellists in the PSQ’s 2014-2015 season as the other three members – violinists Dean Stein and Ron Lantz plus violist Adams – choose a replacement for Ross.
And speaking of transitions, the new team is firmly in place at Maine State Music Theatre, which is currently performing “Buddy” through June 21, while simultaneously preparing for the biggest show of the summer, “Chamberlain,” which opens June 25 and runs through July 12.
I visited MSMT’s headquarters last week, toured the shops where the costumes and sets are being readied for “Chamberlain,” and had a chat with three of MSMT’s principals: artistic director Curt Dale Clarke, managing director Stephanie Dupal and board President Ed Bradley.
Clarke, who had quite a bit of experience with MSMT in seven prior seasons as an actor, was formally named artistic director near the end of last summer. The 2014 season is the first that he has helmed from scratch.
Dupal has 21 years of experience with the company, mostly in financial roles, and has subbed as the managing director on a couple of occasions before taking the job on a permanent basis. Ed Bradley is starting his first term as president of the board of directors. He’s been attending MSMT productions for about the same length of time that I have – a bit over 20 years.
Company headquarters is a converted bus garage on Middle Street in Brunswick. It houses the offices, costume shop, scene shop and two rehearsal halls. The place was buzzing the night I was there, the second day of rehearsals for “Chamberlain.” I watched people spray painting backdrops and sewing incredibly elaborate gowns. And I watched two groups of actors in rehearsal.
“Chamberlain” is MSMT’s own show. It was created on commission 17 years ago by the husband-wife team of Steve Alper (music) and Sarah Knapp (libretto), based on the life of the hero of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. At the time it broke records for attendance and sponsorships.
MSMT’s new team is hoping to repeat that feat as “Chamberlain” is set to reprise next week. Alper and Knapp have made substantial revisions to the show, but it’s still subtitled “A Civil War Romance,” and tells the story of the Bowdoin College professor who commanded the famed 20th Maine Volunteers unit, which played a pivotal role in the Battle of Gettysburg.
I remember interviewing Knapp back when she was first adapting this story to the stage. She emphasized his seemingly contradictory qualities and the challenges of making him seem believable to an audience. On one hand, Chamberlain was a quiet professor who was fluent in nine foreign languages and taught religion and rhetoric. On the other hand, he was a dashing military hero equal to any Hollywood creation.
“People might think that I made this guy up in my head,” Knapp commented. “But he was totally real, and he lived most of his life in a house that’s just across the street from the theater.”
For details on “Chamberlain” performances and tickets, visit www.msmt.org.
The Portland String Quartet will host its annual Maine Festival of American Music June 25-28 at the Shaker Village in New Gloucester.