Out & About: Music on the cutting edge of different genres

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Cutting-edge creative approaches to music of multiple genres are the common theme that links three concerts in Portland this coming week.

First up is an April 8 performance by Hanneke Cassel, a Boston-based fiddler who specializes in a modern take on traditional Scottish music.

Two concerts are slated for April 9. Portland Chamber Music Festival will continue its annual practice of holding a downtown concert focused on contemporary composers at the cutting edge of modern musical aesthetics.

Zappa Plays Zappa is a tribute band that focuses on (not surprisingly) the music of Frank Zappa, the iconic and iconoclastic classically trained rock star whose heyday was the 1960s through 1980s.

On stage, “The Boys Next Door” is a gently comic portrayal of a very un-funny subject: a group of four mentally disabled adults. It’s running through April 12 in South Portland.

Hanneke Cassel

A fiddler from Boston, who fuses Scottish traditions with contemporary musical aesthetics, will be appearing in a Portland concert that will largely spotlight a CD she released in February.

That’s the executive summary of Hanneke Cassel, who will perform with two fellow musicians this coming Wednesday.

Cassel is at the forefront of today’s Celtic music movement, known for very dynamic and thoughtful interpretations of old-time songs and newer pieces crafted in that tradition. A native Oregonian, Cassel graduated in 2000 from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and has been a fixture of The Hub’s vibrant acoustic music community ever since.

She’s won numerous honors for her instrumental prowess, including Berklee’s own award for top performer in the strings department. Plus, she’s a three-time winner of the U.S. National Scottish Fiddling Championships, twice in the junior division and in 1997 in the open competition.

After her Berklee days, Cassel recorded nine albums, the most recent being “Dot the Dragon’s Eye,” released in February. I’ve heard several cuts from this newest CD and I’m quite positively impressed by her technical virtuosity and artistic interpretation.

For her April 8 concert, Cassel will perform with two longtime collaborators. Guitarist Christopher Lewis provides a driving rhythmic accompaniment to Cassel’s fiddling, while cellist Mike Block adds a lower line in the bass-baritone register, sometimes imitating Scottish bagpipes.

Catch Hanneke Cassel at 8 p.m. April 8 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 767-1757.

Portland Chamber Music Festival

After two decades of artistic success and popular acceptance as a summer happening, the Portland Chamber Music Festival recently added a pair of downtown off-season concerts – one in the fall and another in springtime – that focus on cutting-edge composition.

I’ve attended several of these and find them an exhilarating experience. This spring’s PCMF concert is slated for April 9 in a venue that’s commonly associated with cutting-edge visual and performing arts. The program title is “Hear on Earth,” and it features three string quartets.

The program opens with “Pale Blue Dot” by composer David Ludwig, who teaches composition at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. The work was inspired by the famous photograph of earth snapped by the Voyager I spacecraft. Taken 25 years ago from a point beyond Saturn, the iconic photo shows the earth as a minuscule, lonely blue dot in the vastness of space.

Maine’s own top composer is Elliott Schwartz, a former Bowdoin College music professor who has gained international renown for his playful eclecticism, sometimes using a collage approach. His “Bellagio Variations” was inspired by a residency in Italy.

Rounding out the program, Maurice Ravel’s evocative String Quartet from 1903 has a lovely reverence for the past, full of wistfulness and melancholic intimacy. It ought to be noted that Ravel was on the cutting edge of European classical music at the turn of the 20th century.

The performers will include violinist Jennifer Elowitch, PCMF’s artistic director; violinist Gabriela Diaz; violist Russell Wilson and cellist Jennifer Lucht.

The concert is slated for 8 p.m. April 9 at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St. in Portland. Call 828-5600.

Zappa Plays Zappa

Frank Zappa was an iconic and iconoclastic rock musician whose heyday was the 1960s through the 1980s. A classically trained musician who practically worshipped modern French-American composer Edgar Varese, Zappa chose to express his own creative genius through the genre of rock.

He was one of the best rock guitarists of all time, according to Rolling Stone. Plus his cutting-edge composition was distinctively different. Zappa is best-known for performing with his ensemble, the Mothers of Invention, and their definitive 1975 album, “One Size Fits All.”

Zappa died in 1993, but his legacy lives on via live performances fronted by his son, Dweezil, in a band known as Zappa Plays Zappa. Dweezil Zappa, boasting a Grammy Award of his own as a guitarist, is bringing this tribute band to Portland on April 9.

Expect about half the concert to be devoted to playing “One Size Fits All” in its entirety – on its 40th anniversary – plus a selection of other pieces from the Zappa canon.

Catch Zappa Plays Zappa at the State Theatre, 609 Congress St. in Portland, at 8 p.m. April 9. Call 956-6000.

‘The Boys Next Door’

Mental disability is a tough subject for dramatists and audiences alike, a fact that no doubt explains the extreme paucity of plays that focus on that difficult topic.

So it’s interesting that Portland Players, Maine’s oldest community company, is presenting one of the few such works: “The Boys Next Door,” by Tom Griffin.

Set in the present time in a New England town, Griffin’s seriocomic drama focuses on a group home occupied by four adults. Two are mentally retarded – one profoundly – while the other two suffer from overwhelming and totally disabling complexes and psychoses. Plus there’s a sympathetic social worker who competently supervises this unit, but begins to burn out.

There’s no real plot. The play is a string of scenes that range from short, powerful dramatic sketches to the briefest vignettes. Each of the principal actors – Jamie Schwartz, Joe Swenson, Scott Patashnik, Adam Gary Normand and Anthony Marvin – has a superbly crafted character with fine opportunities to shine.

I saw the show last weekend, and I was profoundly impressed with the small cast’s efforts, ably directed by Charlie Marenghi, to combine laughable comedy with indescribable misfortune in a single and singular package of entertainment.

Portland Players, 420 Cottage Road in South Portland, presents “The Boys Next Door” through April 12, with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-7337.

Sidebar Elements

Hanneke Cassel, a Boston-based fiddler who is a leading proponent of modern interpretations of traditional Scottish music, will perform April 9 in Portland.