Out & About: Portland Ovations hosts banjo blowout

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Portland Ovations, in its never-ending quest to present creatively different events, has scheduled one of the most unusual concerts in its 83-year history. On Saturday night, two of America’s foremost banjo players will team up with a highly honored bluegrass band for an unforgettable concert in Merrill Auditorium.

Portland Chamber Music Festival has scheduled its annual fall concert of cutting-edge classical compositions for Wednesday, Nov. 5. A traditional string quartet will tackle a program titled “Handshakes, Songs and Dances,” but concert-goers can expect something that pushes classical music’s proverbial envelope in new and different ways.

And the following night, Tony Award-winning dancer-choreographer Savion Glover will present “STePz,” an evening of homage to the art of tap dancing, hosted by Portland Ovations.

Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn and Del McCoury Band

Three of the world’s top banjo players will be appearing on the same stage Saturday night, as Portland Ovations hosts one of its most unusual and distinguished musical concerts in its long history.

With no fewer than 15 Grammy Awards to his credit – the first in 1979 and the most recent in 2013 – Bela Fleck ranks as the top name. He’s best known for performing with his own group, the Flecktones, plus New Grass Revival. He also has a flourishing solo career. Promoting himself as an exponent of “progressive bluegrass,” Fleck has forayed into other musical realms such as jazz, blues and classical.

Wife Abigail Washburn prefers a more traditional claw-hammer style of banjo picking and the older repertoire. As a performer, she’s best known for her years touring and recording with two ensembles: Uncle Earl and the Sparrow Quartet.

Washburn, who also sings and writes songs, spent several years in China, where she learned Mandarin. She brings an oriental flavor to her music, including writing and singing two songs in Mandarin.

Although Fleck and Washburn have been married for a decade, their first (self-titled) duet album wasn’t issued until earlier this month.

Robbie McCoury is the banjoist with the Del McCoury Band, one of bluegrass music’s most honored ensembles. And of course he’ll be joined by his dad, Del McCoury, and three other bandmates. Over the course of a 50-year career, Del McCoury and his several groups have amassed 19 awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, including multiple trophies for Entertainer of the Year.

The Del McCoury Band visits Maine frequently, mostly at summertime bluegrass festivals. I’ve seen them several times and wholly concur with the IBMA judges.

Catch this once-in-a-lifetime concert at 8 p.m. Nov. 1 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Chamber Music Festival

Music by living composers has been a regular feature of the Portland Chamber Music Festival since the beginning in 1994, with a handful of pieces interspersed among the established classical canon.

A much more recent development is PCMF’s all-contemporary concerts, which have been held at SPACE Gallery for the past several years. I’ve attended a couple of them, and was very impressed by artistic director Jenny Elowitch’s success in an effort where many of her colleagues have tried and failed: finding new and much younger audiences for art music.

On Nov. 5, PCMF will host another concert in this series, featuring music by three living composers. Best known is John Adams, who has attained a rare measure of popular success in contemporary music.

“John’s Book of Alleged Dances” was originally written for the Kronos String Quartet, with the addition of pre-recorded sounds. The curious use of the word “alleged” in the title is a playful reference to the fact that when the piece was written, the namesake dances had not been invented.

Elowitch notes that the entire piece was conceived in a playful vein.

Composer Dan Visconti’s music has been commissioned by ensembles including the Kronos Quartet, the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Albany Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic Scharoun Ensemble. He currently directs the VERGE Ensemble, which presents contemporary music in Washington, D.C.

His piece, “Ramshackle Songs,” was written five years ago.

Composer Scott Ordway is visiting professor of music at Bates College. During the 2013-2014 season, his orchestral, choral, chamber and multimedia works were heard at 35 concerts in 11 U.S. states and Europe. Ordway’s work is titled “Handshakes.”

Elowitch comments on “Handshakes”: “Scott subtitles the quartet ‘eight micro-movements for string quartet,’ and they’re really ‘micro’ — sometimes only a few seconds. Each of the movements is an homage to a master composer of the past.”

The performers comprise a standard string quartet: two violins, viola and cello. The two violinists are exceptionally active in the Boston area. Charles Dimmick plays with several New England ensembles, but is best known to Maine audiences as the concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Gabriela Diaz is a New England Conservatory graduate who is a member of five contemporary music ensembles.

Violist Ralph Farris is a veteran of another string quartet that specializes in contemporary music, plus he’s got a Grammy nomination to his credit. Cellist Jennifer Lucht is a member of the acclaimed Calyx Piano Trio.

Catch this intriguing concert at 8 p.m. Nov. 5 at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St. in Portland. A meet-and-greet cocktail hour precedes the performance. Call SPACE at 828-5600. (This concert was originally scheduled for last May but was canceled due to a performer’s illness.)

Savion Glover’s ‘STePz’

With multiple appearances on television, film and Broadway – including a Tony Award – tap dancer/choreographer Savion Glover is one of the most celebrated figures in the terpsichorean universe.

Glover is returning to Portland for the first time in more than a decade to scorch the Merrill Auditorium stage with his newest production, “STePz,” an exuberant celebration of tap dance that pays homage to past masters. The show also cements Glover’s own place in the pantheon of hoofers.

He’ll bring along a team of dancers who will perform a variety of tap styles to recorded music that ranges from a classical symphony to pop and jazz tunes by Stevie Wonder, Prince and John Coltrane.

Reviewing “STePz” for the Chicago Tribune, dance critic Lois Greenfield described Glover’s dancing: “His tremolo is like syncopated lightning. His staccato sounds like a rattlesnake on amphetamines. Once he finds his groove he barely rests a fraction of a beat – and in the interim he seems to be using his hands to snakecharm the beat out of the floor and into his shoes.”

Portland Ovations presents “STePz” at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements


Banjo virtuosos Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn will be two of the featured artists to appear Saturday night at Merrill Auditorium, hosted by Portland Ovations.

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