Every December it’s hard to avoid the sonic tsunami of “Jingle Bells,” “Santa’s Coming To Town” and a wealth of other popular Christmas tunes. But finding a treasure trove of traditional music for the Advent season is a bit harder.
But it’s do-able here in southern Maine, and this week I’m featuring three outstanding opportunities to hear Christmas music that dates from the Renaissance through the Baroque periods. The biggest is “Christmas at the Cathedral,” an annual program of the Choral Art Society, with four Portland performances slated for this Saturday and Sunday.
“A Baroque Christmas,” an intimate concert that revolves around a partnership of two early music professionals, plays in Portland on Saturday, while the 20-member St. Mary Schola presents its annual “Sing We Noel” program three times the following weekend, in Portland, Falmouth and Brunswick.
On the non-Christmas side of the musical ledger, the Portland String Quartet plays the third of its subscription concerts this Sunday.
Of all the concerts I attend at this time of year, there’s none that I eagerly anticipate as much as “Christmas at the Cathedral,” which is produced the first weekend of each December by the Choral Art Society. This year’s concerts will be the 27th in the series.
“Christmas at the Cathedral” attracts over 2,000 listeners with stirring and reflective music presented in a gorgeous building. Music director Robert Russell conducts the singers, and they will be joined the Portland Brass Quintet – which mostly comprises members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra – plus organist Dan Moore.
Concertgoers can expect a transcendent experience in a stunning setting that combines spiritual, multi-cultural and secular aspects of the season. Among the most impressive moments are the entrance and exit of the singers, whose candles provide the only light in the cathedral’s darkened nave.
Each year’s concert includes “Personent Hodie Voces Puerulae,” a hauntingly beautiful arrangement of a Renaissance tune for brass and organ that serves as the ensemble’s signature number.
Although a selection of modern pieces is found on every year’s program, the CAS focuses on traditional offerings and contemporary works that respect that heritage. The newest piece on the program will be the winner of the CAS’ inaugural Christmas Carol competition. “The Bells I Heard” was penned by Connecticut composer Ellen Gilson Voth, who was inspired by a poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The CAS is now in its 43rd year, with most of that time under Russell’s direction. The ensemble entirely comprises amateur singers who are selected by audition.
Four performances are slated at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St., Portland: Dec. 6 at noon and 8 p.m. and Dec. 7 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call 828-0043.
On the opposite side of the size spectrum is “A Baroque Christmas,” which is the product of a musical duo with an intriguing moniker.
Music’s Quill was formed in 2000, when two professional Maine musicians, Timothy Neill Johnson and Timothy Burris, met and discovered their shared love of the beauty of the human voice accompanied by the Renaissance lute, a predecessor to today’s guitar.
Music’s Quill weaves the human voice through the lute’s delicate harmonies. Johnson and Burris specialize in songs of England, France, Germany and Italy that were popular from the Renaissance to the Baroque periods.
I’ve heard these guys a couple of times and they are quite impressive. Using the lute’s intimacy, Burris weaves an artful harmonic foundation, which enhances the beauty of the vocal line. Johnson’s exceptional voice reveals poetic subtleties in the lyrics.
For this Christmas concert, Johnson and Burris have invited two additional performers. Todd Borgerding will play the viola da gamba, which is a medieval stringed instrument that preceded the modern cello, and Lisa Kay Moore will read a number of texts.
Catch “A Baroque Christmas” in the intimate chapel of St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St., Portland, at 7 p.m. Dec. 6. Call 829-9959.
The Saint Mary Schola, based at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Falmouth, is a professional early music ensemble devoted to the performance of master works from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Numbering approximately 20 singers and instrumentalists, this ensemble has gained a reputation for excellence and elegant chamber music, especially in the a cappella tradition. I’ve attended a couple of the Schola’s concerts over the past few years, and can enthusiastically recommend them.
The Schola’s annual Christmas concerts are among the high points of Maine’s classical music calendar. This year’s program includes medieval processions, a mystical chant by Hildegard von Bingen, magnificent motets by Michael Praetorius and Heinrich Schutz, as well as haunting masterworks by Francois Poulenc. The concert will conclude with the entire Schola ensemble in a joyful Christmas anthem by Henry Purcell.
Three performances are planned: Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St., Portland; Dec. 14 at 4 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, and Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Parish Church, 9 Cleaveland St., Brunswick.
The Portland String Quartet continues its 2014-2015 subscription series this Sunday with a program that features a major work by Ludwig van Beethoven and a guest cellist.
The guest will be Andrew Mark, a graduate of the New England Conservatory who now heads the strings department at the nearby Boston Conservatory. He is one of several guests who have been invited to play this season as the PSQ evaluates and chooses a permanent replacement for founding cellist Paul Ross, who retired last summer. Violist Julia Adams told me that she and her colleagues hope that the new cellist will be named this spring.
Also ongoing this season is the PSQ’s presentation of Beethoven’s three “Razumovsky” quartets, a set that takes its name from the Russian diplomat who commissioned them in 1806. The quartet scheduled this Sunday – the second in the series – includes a prominently placed Russian theme in the third movement.
Taken as a whole, the Razumovsky quartets are considered the epitome of Beethoven’s fertile “middle period,” and they remain among the most revered and frequently performed pieces in the chamber music literature.
Catch the Portland String Quartet at 2 p.m. Dec. 7 at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford Ave. in Portland. Call the LARK Society at 761-1522.
Singers from the Choral Art Society form the nucleus of the annual “Christmas at the Cathedral” concerts in Portland, with four performances Dec. 6 and 7.