Out & About: PSO celebrates 90th with retro flourish

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As the calendar inexorably marches toward the midpoint of spring, many of southern Maine’s arts and entertainment producers and presenters are wrapping up their fall-winter-spring seasons.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra is bowing goodbye on its 90th anniversary season with a retrospective flourish. The finale comes on Saturday with a special non-subscription concert that will recall a flood of happy memories: Maestro Robert Moody has invited his three living predecessors as guest conductors.

Lyric Music Theater wraps up its season of four musicals this weekend with a fine community production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” one of the funniest Broadway shows ever written.

Portland Community Chorus wraps up its 2014-2015 season with a pair of concerts in Scarborough on Friday and Saturday.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

For 90 years the Portland Symphony Orchestra has been a mainstay of southern Maine’s cultural life, and as the 2014-2015 season winds down, maestro Robert Moody has planned a gala finale concert with a retrospective flourish.

He’s invited all three of his living predecessors – Paul Vermel, Bruce Hangen and Toshi Shimada – to return to conduct one work apiece on the program.

Here’s a bit of background. What we know today as the Portland Symphony Orchestra was first organized as an amateur ensemble that played in one of the city’s first movie theaters back in the glory years of silent films. From the 1920s through the early 1960s, the orchestra gradually evolved, tackling bigger and more challenging programs and improving its musicianship.

Today’s PSO is mainly the work of its four most recent conductors. Collectively they span more than half the PSO’s institutional lifetime.

French-born Vermel, a Juilliard graduate and music professor, took over the PSO in 1967 and turned it into a fully professional ensemble. Hangen, who led the PSO for 10 years, started the wildly successful Magic of Christmas concerts, which continue to the present.

Japanese-born Shimada was by far the longest-tenured maestro, taking the podium for 20 seasons. Under his leadership the PSO won an award for adventurous programming and his extensive European experience added international prestige to the Port City. I have great personal affection for Shimada. I became a PSO regular during his years (1986 through 2006) and interviewed him half a dozen times.

Moody is now in his seventh season. Under his leadership the PSO has upped concert attendance and enhanced its education and outreach programming. Moody’s pre-concert “conversations” are very well attended, and audiences appreciate how articulately he explains his musical choices and selection of guest artists.

On Saturday, Vermel will lead off, conducting the overture to Ludwig van Beethoven’s suite of incidental music for “Egmont,” a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Second will be Ottorino Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome,” with Hangen on the podium. Shimada will tackle Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis,” which is based on themes written in the 1800s by Carl Maria von Weber.

Moody will conclude the evening, leading “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a large and spectacular work by Richard Strauss. Its overture became part of the popular musical lexicon in 1968 when it was used in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That unforgettable fanfare is followed by eight short, dramatic movements.

Catch the Portland Symphony’s season finale concert at 7:30 p.m. May 2 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Community Chorus

The Portland Community Chorus has provided a creative outlet for the musical interests and vocal talents of southern Maine residents since the 1950s, and has been allied with the Portland Symphony Orchestra for much of that period. Music director is Rob Westerberg, who has enjoyed a very distinguished career as a choral conductor and music educator in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Today the PCC is best-known as the PSO’s “Magic of Christmas” chorus, but the 168-member ensemble also produces an independent concert series. This weekend the PCC will wrap up its 2014-2015 season with Friday and Saturday concerts in Scarborough.

The first half of the program is devoted to four short religious works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. These pieces span Mozart’s composing career, from teenage years to shortly before his death.

Following intermission will be four works written in the 20th century for male chorus. Most familiar will be “Gershwin: A Concert Panorama.” Affectionately subtitled “Gershwin Medley,” this piece is a mainstay of choral groups around the country. It is a suite based largely upon songs drawn from Broadway musicals written in the 1920s and 1930s by George and Ira Gershwin. Songs in the medley include “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “Swanee” and “Strike Up the Band.”

The Portland Community Chorus will give two concerts this weekend at Scarborough High School, 11 Municipal Drive, at 7:30 p.m. May 1 and 2 p.m. May 2. Call 370-5320.

‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is a brilliantly comic mash-up of theatrical styles, including classic farce, Broadway musical, and commedia dell’arte plus liberal dollops of vaudeville.

The script, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, deftly cobbles together a mixed bag of comic devices that range from stock characters to breathless chases and slamming doors. The music and lyrics represented Stephen Sondheim’s first full score produced on Broadway.

The characters include dim-witted noblemen, clever slaves, a ditzy ingenue, a vainglorious soldier, a domineering wife, a hen-pecked husband and half a dozen curvaceous courtesans. Plus there are magic potions and a dizzying array of little comic gimmicks and sight gags.

The show was a big hit of the 1962 Broadway season, running three years and copping five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book.

Lyric Music Theater wraps up its 2014-2015 season of musicals with a splendid community production. The cast is ably dominated by Zack Handlen, who plays a slave in ancient Rome who devises a cockamamie scheme to win his freedom: hooking up his weak-minded master with a beautiful girl. As with all farces, plans go awry and complications abound, but everything sorts out nicely at the denouement.

Co-directors are Mary Meserve and John Blanchette. Kudos are earned by set designer Steve Lupien and music director Rebecca Caron.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at 8 p.m. April 30, May 1 and May 2. Call 799-1421.

Sidebar Elements

Lyric Music Theater in South Portland wraps up its 2014-2015 season of musicals this weekend with the final performances of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” one of the funniest Broadway shows ever written.