Out & About: Music that pushes boundaries in Portland

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Tired of straight vanilla in music? This weekend offers a pair of concerts that stretch artistic boundaries in very different directions. On Friday, Portland Ovations is bringing in one of the world’s most curious musical ensembles: the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

The following night, Jenny Elowitch’s Portland Chamber Music Festival is slated to perform “Seven & Seven,” an evening of music that pushes the metaphorical envelope in several classical directions.

On a somewhat more conventional note – but hardly straight vanilla, either – One Longfellow Square presents a pair of championship fiddlers on Friday: Hanneke Cassel and Jeremy Kittel in an evening spotlighting the musical traditions of Scotland and Celtic Canada.

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

If you think that the ukulele is (or ought to be) limited to Tiny Tim and Hawaiian crooners, Portland Ovations has a concert coming up that will expand your horizons.

Comprising eight players, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was formed in 1985 on the conviction that no music is too sacred for satire. The ensemble will visit the Port City this Friday with its characteristic funny, virtuosic, twanging, foot-stomping “obituary” of rock-n-roll and melodious pop songs featuring only the “bonsai guitar” and a menagerie of voices.

The current ensemble has been playing together for over 20 years, and has become something of a British institution. The Orchestra has given thousands of sold-out concerts across the world, most recently at the Sydney Opera House, The Royal Albert Hall and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

After a recent concert in Scotland, music writer Irene Brown commented in the Edinburgh Review: “The sartorially splendid ensemble give virtuoso versions of an eclectic selection of songs and music. Using a range of ukuleles from soprano, concert, tenor, baritone to bass, they strum, hum, whistle, hand jive and tap their way through hits from Prince, Lou Reed, Junior Walker and the All Stars, Kraftwerk, The Who and Chic, not to mention a bit of Bach.

It’s also worth noting what the group does not have: drums, pianos, backing tracks, banjos, pitch shifters or electronic trickery. The ensemble relies solely on the rich palette of orchestration afforded by ukuleles and singing — plus a bit of whistling.

Catch the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Chamber Music Festival

For the past two decades, the Portland Chamber Music Festival has become a fixture of southern Maine’s performing arts scene, known for its small-ensemble classical concerts that take place every August.

In addition to creating a substantial local following among music lovers – and I count myself among the most enthusiastic – PCMF has also gained a national reputation for adventurous programming that embraces contemporary composers.

Over the past couple of years artistic director Jenny Elowitch has expanded her festival’s core concept to include an occasional series of off-season concerts at SPACE Gallery on Congress Street, where the programming is entirely devoted to avant garde and adventurous music.

This Saturday, PCMF continues that series with “Seven & Seven,” an evening where four professional musicians will tackle a variety of cutting-edge compositions by four of today’s leading composers.

The lineup of musicians will be led by Elowitch, a violinist who plays with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and numerous other groups in greater Boston. Several of these are noted for promoting modern music.

Soprano Tony Arnold has garnered a Grammy Award nomination, and she was thrust into the international spotlight in 2001 when she became the only vocalist ever to be awarded first prize in the Gaudeamus International Interpreters Competition.

Michael Norsworthy is a celebrated champion of the modern clarinet repertoire. To date, he has given over 125 world premieres with leading contemporary music groups, including the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Manhattan Sinfonietta, Fromm Players at Harvard, Boston Musica Viva, Callithumpian Consort in Boston, Ensemble 21 in New York and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.

Brian Calhoon combines his experience as a percussionist and vocalist to perform a unique collection of music for marimba, vibraphone and voice. Performances feature adaptations, covers and transcriptions of music ranging from classical, jazz and pop.

The program includes four works: Franco Donatoni’s “Cinis,” scored for soprano and bass clarinet; Nico Muhly’s “It Goes Without Saying,” for clarinet and electronics; Georges Aperghis’ “Seven Crimes of Love,” for soprano, clarinet and percussion; and Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Armenian Songs,” for soprano, violin and percussion.

The latter piece was given its world premiere in California in 2013 by Arnold. This Saturday’s performance will be only the second time the work has been performed.

Elowitch touts this Saturday’s concert as among the most adventurous she has ever programmed: “This is probably the most daring program we’ve ever done, and the most fun,” she said. “It’s a very unusual combination of musicians – soprano, violin, clarinet, and percussion – and SPACE Gallery is a perfect place to explore this crazy grouping.

“The gallery is known for being experimental and pushing the envelope, and our partnership with them has allowed us to really go all out. The Aperghis ‘Seven Crimes of Love’ is very theatrical. It has a kind of story line and asks the players to do things they would never usually do in performance. It’s also fun to be doing a piece by Nico Muhly right now, since the Metropolitan Opera has just premiered his opera there.”

Catch “Seven & Seven” at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St. in Portland. Cocktail hour begins at 7 p.m. and the performance is slated for 8 p.m. Call PCMF at 800-320-0257.

Hanneke Cassel and Jeremy Kittel

Two topnotch fiddlers with impeccable credentials have paired up, and you can catch them on Friday in Portland. Both Hanneke Cassel and Jeremy Kittel boast U.S. national championships in Scottish fiddle and a wide range of international experience as performers.

The two fiddlers are 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. Performing as a duo at One Longfellow Square, Cassel and Kittel promise an evening of innovative Scottish and Irish fiddle music and songs from Eastern Canada and Quebec.

For Friday evening’s performance, Cassel and Kittle will be joined by guitarist Keith Murphy, who specializes in traditional music of his native Canada.

Catch Hanneke Cassel and Jeremy Kittel at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will visit Merrill Auditorium in Portland this Friday, hosted by Portland Ovations.