Out & About: Old ‘Magic,’ new conductor

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At mid-December, the Portland Symphony Orchestra puts on the biggest and by far the most heavily attended performing arts spectacular of the holiday season.

The PSO’s annual “Magic of Christmas,” a Portland tradition for 30 years, is slated for an even dozen performances over the next two weekends. For the 2013 edition, maestro Robert Moody is reverting to an earlier “Magic” format, and he’ll share the podium with Norman Huynh, the PSO’s new assistant conductor.

Sandwiched between the two PSO weekends, Portland Ballet will take over Merrill Auditorium for its signature “Victorian Nutcracker” on Dec. 18.

Portland’s One Longfellow Square is forging a new tradition from old ingredients with an exciting show that’s been gaining traction for several years: “Yulegrass” unites five bluegrass artists for two Christmas shows this Saturday.

‘Magic of Christmas’

Of all the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s programs, the most popular by far is the annual “Magic of Christmas,” which pulls approximately 20,000 people of all ages through the doors at Merrill Auditorium. That number roughly equals the combined audiences of the entire classical and pops series.

For many people among those throngs, “Magic” is their sole connection with the symphony, while others are introduced to the PSO via the Christmas concerts and later come aboard for the full year’s program.

“Magic” has been a mainstay of southern Maine’s cultural life for 30 years.

For the 2013 edition of this beloved family tradition, maestro Robert Moody is reverting to an older format, which re-emphasizes music of the Christmas season and eschews the non-musical elements that he introduced at the beginning of his directorship: puppets, acrobats and illusionists.

Moody’s musical selections are drawn from five sources: light classical, Broadway, Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley and traditional Christmas favorites. The former is epitomized by excerpts from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

Broadway is represented by Jerry Hermann’s “We Need a Little Christmas,” while Hollywood chimes in with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Walter Kent’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” exemplifies the Tin Pan Alley style of the mid-20th century.

The sing-along will include a number of traditional Christmas carols. Perhaps the most popular “Magic” numbers are associated with Leroy Anderson, the longtime arranger with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Anderson’s “Christmas Festival Overture” combines a number of familiar tunes, and his original composition, “Sleigh Ride,” is always the highlight of the concert as the orchestra’s musicians don festive headgear for the occasion.

Two singers have been engaged for the concerts. Tenor Jonathan Blalock recently has copped leading roles at Santa Fe Opera numerous other companies. Soprano Jessica Cates, who previously sung with the PSO in 2012, has appeared with Knoxville Opera and other troupes.

For the middle third of the concert, the orchestra will be led by Norman Huynh, the PSO’s newly appointed assistant conductor and community liaison point man. Huynh (pronounced “when”) is 25 years old and was most recently a cover conductor for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Portland Symphony Orchestra presents 12 performances of “Magic of Christmas” at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall on the following schedule: Dec. 13 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 14 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 15 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., Dec. 20 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 22 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘The Victorian Nutcracker’

On the Wednesday between “Magic of Christmas” weekends, Merrill Auditorium will be the venue for another beloved Maine tradition, Portland Ballet’s very interesting re-imagining of “The Nutcracker.”

Two decades ago, Portland Ballet introduced “The Victorian Nutcracker,” an adaptation which changed the setting from an elegant European home to Portland’s own Victoria Mansion, the opulent brownstone edifice (and National Historic Landmark) built in 1860 on Danforth Street.

In the first act, a Christmas Eve party, the characters are re-imagined as Portlanders of the mid-19th century. The second act, which takes place in the imagination of a 10-year-old girl, is essentially unaltered. The second act is a succession of dances, each with its own colorful theme and lovely music, culminating in the famous pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier.

I’ve seen “The Victorian Nutcracker” several times and plan to attend again this year. Its salient features include a live orchestra playing Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s celebrated score, conducted by Lawrence Golan, the former concertmaster of the Portland Symphony.

Portland Ballet Company, founded by artistic director Eugenia O’Brien, is Maine’s professional terpsichorean troupe. Some roles are danced by students of the associated ballet school, which includes a nationally recognized pre-professional training program.

Portland Ballet presents “The Victorian Nutcracker” on Dec. 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Two addition performances, with recorded music, have been scheduled for Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center, 471 Stroudwater St. Call PortTix at 842-0800.


A young musician from Portland is the driving force behind southern Maine’s newest Christmas tradition. “Yulegrass” unites five outstanding bluegrass musicians for an evening of Christmas music at One Longfellow Square.

The leader is Lauren Rioux, who was born in Portland and studied classical violin at the University of Southern Maine. As a teen, Rioux also branched into pop music and bluegrass fiddling. She is a veteran of Kalliope, her own pop band, and currently plays with Republic of Strings, a prominent “newgrass” band.

Banjo wiz Tony Trischka has a professional career that stretches back 45 years, and includes a stint with the Down City Ramblers and multiple world tours. In addition to his role as performer, he is equally known as a teacher and mentor to up-and-coming players.

Mike Block is a pioneering multi-style cellist who is currently part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Block is known for successfully introducing the cello into genres that have traditionally been considered off-limits to his classical instrument.

A consummate musician and singer-songwriter, Scott Law embodies the ideal of the American guitar master. Thoroughly rooted in Americana, Law exudes a love for live performance and imaginative and dynamic improvisation.

Amanda Kowalski is a high-energy upright bass player who also sings lead and harmony. She was a co-founder of Della Mae, Boston’s celebrated distaff grassers, and currently performs with the Bob Smiley Band and Uncle Earl.

“Yulegrass” is slated for two performances, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

Portland Ballet Company will perform its signature production, “The Victorian Nutcracker,” on Dec. 18 in Portland and Dec. 21 in Westbrook.