Out & About: Portland Symphony’s new commission: ‘The Telling Rooms’

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Eckart Preu, the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, will make his first appearance this weekend, leading a program that includes a newly commissioned work co-produced with a Portland literary arts organization.

Just in case you missed it the first time – a few millennium ago – God reprises (and rethinks) her work on the Creation and the Ten Commandments through Feb. 10 at Portland’s Good Theater.

Sky is blue and grass is green? That familiar (mis)conception is the conceit of Greensky Bluegrass, a band that pledges to redefine conventional musical wisdom on Jan. 29 at Portland’s State Theatre.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Eckart Preu, Portland Symphony Orchestra’s music director designate, will make only one appearance during the 2018-2019 season before taking over as the full-time maestro next fall. On Jan. 27 and 29 he will lead the PSO in a program that features a newly commissioned work that involves a southern Maine literary arts organization.

The Telling Room is a Portland-based nonprofit that provides a showcase for young storytellers and poets between the ages of 6 and 18. Three of them – Aubrey Duplissie, Husna Quinn and Eliza Rudalevige – have written poems that have been set to music by composer Michael-Thomas Foumai.

The composer is a Hawaiian who has won numerous awards for contemporary music who states that his inspirations come from film, literature and storytelling. The piece to be premiered by the PSO is titled “The Telling Rooms.” Fourmai describes it as a triptych, with each of the three parts based on a poem, with titles “The Happiest Color,” “Dressed in Red” and “Ink Wash.”

The program begins and ends with familiar works of the symphonic canon by a pair of Russian Romantic composers. The opener will be Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy,” which is “arguably the most sublime love music ever composed,” according to PSO program annotator Mark Rohr.

The big work will be “Scheherazade,” a huge symphonic poem composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It was inspired by the stories of the “Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” as told by the eponymous central character.

The program will be presented twice at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: Jan. 27 at 2:30 p.m. and Jan. 29 at 7:30 p.m. PSO Executive Director Carolyn Nishon tells me that the pre-concert discussion will be led by Preu with composer Foumai and two of the three Portland poets participating. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘An Act of God’

At Good Theater, the resident thespian troupe at Portland’s St. Lawrence Arts Center, artistic director Brian Allen’s midwinter pick is another story-based work, David Javerbaum’s “An Act of God.”

The stories are the 66 books of the Bible, and the central conceit of the play is that God herself is re-thinking and re-interpreting the stories for a hip audience of millennials. For starters, God immediately self-identifies as Laura Houck, a middle-aged woman from Falmouth, costumed in a white pantsuit.

Then she gets into the Bible, starting with “Genesis” and ending with “Revelations,” all along explaining her reasoning and underscoring her highlights and suggesting where she went wrong. Plus we get an updated re-working of the Ten Commandments.

“An Act of God” is really an 85-minute comic monologue, but Houck does have a pair of helpers, archangels Michael and Gabriel, Michael Lynch and Paul Haley, who act as foils and have a few funny lines.

“An Act of God” was a big hit in New York, but I felt that it fell flat in Portland. Javerbaum’s writing is very clever at points, but elicited mostly occasional chuckles and rather than belly laughs. This reviewer being a few decades older and less hip than a demographic millennial was probably also a factor in my reaction, but most of the audience seemed to agree with this assessment.

“An Act of God” plays through Feb. 10 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland. Call 835-0895 or visit GoodTheater.com.

Greensky Bluegrass

Bluegrass music for hip millennials is the shtick of a band that’s coming to Portland’s State Theatre on Jan. 29. Bluesky Bluegrass comprises the traditional five guys, but they evince an aesthetic ethic that feels more like rock.

Greensky Bluegrass has been thriving on this combination since 2000, and the band has been performing in major venues since 2006; they currently log about 100 live shows per year. This past weekend they released their seventh studio album, titled “All For The Money,” which will no doubt form the core of their State Theatre show.

Catch Greensky Bluegrass at the State Theatre, 609 Congress St. in Portland, at 8 p.m. Jan. 29. Call 800-854-2196.

God and her archangels rethink Genesis and the Ten Commandments in “An Act of God,” playing through Feb. 10 at Portland’s Good Theater.

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