Out & About: Oratorio Chorale, Mary Fahl top picks

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A couple of upcoming programs are closely tied to American musical traditions.

One of these will be given by the Oratorio Chorale, the Mid-Coast arts organization that’s concluding its 43rd season this month. This Friday and Saturday the Chorale will perform “Amazing Grace,” a collection of American spirituals, in Falmouth and Brunswick.

Mary Fahl is a singer-songwriter who is firmly rooted in the Americana tradition. Formerly the lead singer with October Project, Fahl is currently showcasing her powerful and passionately expressive alto voice with her own ensemble.

There may be a new annual music event in southern Maine. This past weekend a trial version of a festival of contemporary classical music was held at Bates College in Lewiston. Let’s take a quick peek at what went down.

Oratorio Chorale

It’s more than a concert. It’s an experience.

That’s the word from Emily Isaacson, artistic director of the Oratorio Chorale, the vocal ensemble that’s wrapping up its 43rd season this weekend. Isaacson took the baton of the 50-member group four years ago and has greatly reinvigorated it with inspired leadership and innovative programming.

The title of this weekend’s program is “Amazing Grace,” and it covers a variety of spirituals from the African-American tradition. This multimedia performance promises to take audiences on a journey tracing the history of African-American spirituals through Pre-Emancipation folk singing, Emancipation, Post-Emancipation concertized spirituals and 20th-century gospel. Among the topics will be the tangled history and identity of the title song itself.

A collaborator in this production is Portland’s Abyssinian Meeting House, the third oldest African-American church in this country. Two soloists have been engaged, soprano Mary Sullivan, the Chorale’s artist in residence, and countertenor Reginald Mobley, who specializes in Baroque music, jazz and traditional American spirituals. A longtime member of the twice Grammy-nominated ensemble Seraphic Fire, Mobley is new to Maine audiences but renowned in the U.S. and abroad.

“This concert is multi-sensory, multi-media and interactive,” Isaacson explains. “Our aim is that through listening, watching, reading and singing, the audience can join us in understanding and celebrating this music.”

Isaacson also explains an underlying rationale behind this program: “People keep asking me, ‘What is a largely white choir in Maine doing singing spirituals?’ But if we can only sing music that is part of our direct cultural heritage, then does that mean we can’t sing Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Piazzolla or Mozart? Or we can’t perform music from 300 years ago?

“Whenever I am preparing a concert, I always study the political, historical, and social context, as well as the performance tradition around the music. That preparation does not change just because this music is in English and from my home country. In fact, it pushes me to dig deeper, past my own assumptions, to understand why this music is so powerful.”

Oratorio Chorale presents “Amazing Grace” three times this weekend: May 19 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 43 Foreside Rd. in Falmouth, and May 20 at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 27 Pleasant St. in Brunswick. Call 577-3931.

Mary Fahl

I’ll admit to being a bit mystified by Mary Fahl’s promotional material, which always introduces her as the former lead singer with October Project. That’s true, of course, but her involvement with that group ended 21 years ago.

But more importantly, Fahl’s subsequent solo career, both as a singer and a songwriter, has been so stellar that it ought to be highlighted in its own right.

She visits Portland fairly frequently, and her next stop will be this Friday.

With a powerful alto voice that adapts well to a variety of styles and material, Fahl’s live performances are memorable. She got her musical start in traditional folk – her rendition of “Shenandoah” is outstanding – and she is also an avid student of some of the pioneering female singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s. Fahl’s take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is another paragon of modern American music.

Under her own name, Fahl has released four albums, most recently in 2014. Among her albums is “Dark Side of the Moon,” a complete re-imagining of the landmark 1973 Pink Floyd record of the same name.

“Blessed with a magnificent range, Mary Fahl is an expressive, emotional singer-songwriter,” comments Alex Henderson, writing for AllMusic. “Her soaring vocals have always been big, robust and full-bodied.”

Catch Mary Fahl at 8 p.m. May 19 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

New music at Bates

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in contemporary music in the classical tradition in southern Maine, with at least two annual events featuring living composers. Tops is the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, a three-day sub-unit of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, which takes place in midsummer.

More recently the Portland Conservatory of Music has added a new music weekend to its annual schedule of events.

Now there may be another in the works.

Last weekend the Bates College music department hosted a contemporary music event. The two biggest attractions were the Momenta Quartet, a Manhattan-based foursome that specializes in contemporary music. The other was a residency by Arthur Kampela, a Brazilian composer who now lives in New York. Kampela has written for the New York Philharmonic and other prestigious ensembles.

The capstone of the five days was a Friday concert that I attended. The centerpiece of the evening was Momenta’s performance of a piece titled “A Knife All Blade,” followed by a question-and-answer period with the composer who was joined by violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron. The host was Hiroya Miura, chairman of the Bates music department and a noted composer in his own right.

“A Knife All Blade” (English translation) was written as part of Kampela’s doctoral studies at Columbia University. It is a technically challenging piece, employing nonstop extended playing techniques and almost theatrical gestures on the part of the four musicians. Miura described it as “one of the most complex pieces in the history of music.”

Other highlights of the five days was a lecture-demonstration by Kampela, who is also a virtuoso guitarist, and the premiere of a new work for violin and gamelan ensemble. Gamelan is set of Indonesian bronze chimes. The college owns a significant collection, and boasts a rotating student gamelan ensemble that gives occasional public performances.

Based on Miura’s comments, it seems likely that Bates New Music Week will become a new addition to Maine’s roster of annual happenings.

Mary Fahl, a singer-songwriter who is firmly rooted in the Americana tradition, will perform this Friday in Portland.

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