Out & About: Midcoast Symphony Orchestra opens 20th season in Topsham, Lewiston

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One of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most famous and enduring works will be the centerpiece of this weekend’s program when the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra opens its 20th season with concerts in Lewiston and Topsham. In recent years, under the baton of maestro Rohan Smith, this once-faltering community orchestra has tremendously improved in size and quality and is rapidly emerging as a major cultural force in the region.

Portland Symphony Orchestra is getting very busy, too. This weekend it’s presenting two performances of “Cirque de la Symphony,” the first Pops program of the 2009-2010 season. Then on Oct. 27 it switches artistic gears to Brahms, Berg and Sibelius for the season’s second Classical Tuesday.

There was a Halloween spirit in the air when Public Theater of Lewiston/Auburn opened its 19th season last weekend with “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” a curious stage version of the famous novelette by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra

How times have changed. Half a dozen years ago, when I first started attending concerts of the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, the turnout was so sparse that it was embarrassing to sit in the audience.

Last spring when I attended last season’s final concert, every seat was filled and dozens of standees lined the back of the hall.

Time and circumstance have certainly favored this fine community orchestra, which is rapidly emerging as one of Maine’s cultural forces. I expect that fortunate trend to continue this weekend when the MSO opens its 20th season with concerts in Lewiston on Saturday and Topsham on Sunday.

Give much of the credit to maestro Rohan Smith, an Australian-born, European-trained professional violinist/music director with vast experience playing and conducting on three continents. Under his leadership the MSO has boosted its numbers, improved the quality of its playing and set loftier goals by tackling more challenging repertoire and engaging a number of world-class professional soloists.

Smith has picked three pieces for this weekend. Best-known is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Eroica” (“Heroic”). No. 3 is an expansive and ground-breaking work that is often cited as a crucial pivot point in musical history, marking a moment when the Classical Period began transforming into the Romantic.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” is a showpiece for cello and orchestra. Joining the MSO as soloist will be Emmanuel Feldman, a music professor at Tufts University, Brown University and the New England Conservatory. Known for his intensely soulful playing and a broad range of repertoire and styles, Feldman enjoys an active career as a soloist, chamber musician and recording artist.

Richard Wagner’s overture to “Rienzi,” his third opera, is an energetic orchestral piece that’s characterized by brilliant fanfares for the brass section.

Two performances are planned: Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Franco-American Heritage Center (corner of Oxford and Cedar in Lewiston) and Oct. 25 at 2:30 p.m. at the Orion Performing Arts Center (Mt. Ararat Middle School) in Topsham. Call 689-2000 for the Lewiston performance or 846-5378 for Topsham.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

The Portland Symphony Orchestra has a busy period ahead, playing three times over a four-day span.

First up is a pair of Pops concerts this weekend. Maestro Robert Moody plans some visual spectacle by inviting a circus – or “cirque” as they prefer to be called – to join his instrumentalists.

The concert is titled “Cirque de Symphony,” and it’s an exciting adaptation of artistic performances widely seen in theaters and arenas everywhere, showcasing many of the world’s best circus artists – bedazzling the audience with aerial flyers, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers, balancers and strongmen.

And the music? Audiences will hear light classical works by Antonin Dvorak, Georges Bizet, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Aram Khachaturian and Ludwig van Beethoven. Their powerful orchestral scores will amplify the visual effects.

On Oct. 27 the PSO returns to straight classical with a concert that features pieces by Johannes Brahms, Alban Berg and Jean Sibelius. The featured work will be Berg’s violin concerto – Moody assures patrons that this piece does not represent the composer’s infamously challenging 12-tone style – with PSO concertmaster Charles Dimmick as the soloist.

All performances are in Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Here are the times: Pops at 8 p.m. Oct. 24 and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 25, and Tuesday Classical at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde’

Halloween happens a week from Saturday, and many theaters capitalize on spook season by presenting horror stories. That’s certainly the case in Lewiston, where The Public Theatre, a fully professional company now in its 19th season, opened its subscription series last weekend with “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage adaptation of the famous 19th-century novelette by Robert Louis Stevenson, a grotesque story that explores the duality of the human psyche and its seemingly unlimited potential for evil.

Duality is Stevenson’s central concept. In the original story, the brilliant English physician Dr. Henry Jekyll experiments with powerful chemical potions that have the effect of isolating the two morally antipodal sides of the human spirit. Ingesting these concoctions himself, Jekyll morphs into a murderous and loathsome alter ego who haunts the London netherworld as Mr. Edward Hyde, strangling men and chopping up prostitutes.

That’s the essence of the famous story that most people know. In Hatcher’s curious stage adaptation, this bifurcation isn’t enough: Hyde himself is chopped up into four characters, played by a quartet of actors. Each of these actors – Hyde No. 1, etc. – in turn doubles as another character from Jekyll’s circle of friends and professional acquaintances.

At times, Hatcher’s confused artistic concoction devolves into a veritable Greek chorus of Hydes. Maybe the playwright is making some profound point that Stevenson overlooked, but I found Hatcher’s multi-voice cacophony of horror to be far less effective than the traditional straightforward version with a single tortured soul.

Kudos to the two principal actors who have to deal with this mess. Peter Crosby delivers a convincing interpretation of the esteemed London doctor who struggles with his inner evil self. I was also thrilled with Peter Simon Hilton’s portrayal of Hyde No. 1, the murderous fiend who does the actual dirty work. But Hatcher’s trio of sidekick Hydes unfortunately confuses and obscures the overall effect of this production. Definitely not the fault of the actors.

The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn (corner of Maple and Lisbon in Lewiston) presents “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” through Oct. 25 with performances at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 782-3200.

Sidebar Elements

pnms-outabout-102109.jpgScary moments abound in “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” a stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novelette, which opens the 2009-2010 season at The Public Theatre of Lewiston-Auburn.