Out & About: PSO celebrates the Bernstein centenary

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Leonard Bernstein was the most important classical musician in American history. Over the course of this program year, the Portland Symphony Orchestra will mark the centennial of his birth and celebrate his musical contributions and creations.

The observance begins this Sunday with a concert that features Bernstein’s “Jeremiah.” Guest mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis will sing the vocal line, which is based on Hebrew text. The Masterworks Choir of ChoralArt will appear in two other works.

Two days later in the same venue, Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ present their annual Halloween silent horror movie with improvised organ accompaniment by Tom Trenney.

Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards are an all-female folkie-style quartet who have a new album coming out. This Saturday they’ll appear in Portland to promote “California Calling.”

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Among American composers of classical music, Leonard Bernstein stands out as the most prolific and most prominent. The native of Lawrence, Massachusetts, wrote three symphonies, three ballets, three operas and numerous pieces of chamber music. Plus he often strayed from the classical fold to write for popular audiences, especially television specials and Broadway musicals.

Non-classical audiences know him best as the composer of “West Side Story,” a Broadway musical that won two Tony Awards in 1958.

Bernstein was also famous as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, with which he was associated for 47 years. Many remember him for his television series of “Young People’s Concerts,” which ran on the CBS network.

Bernstein was born in 1918, and for the 2017-2018 program year, Portland Symphony Orchestra maestro Robert Moody has decided to celebrate the Bernstein centenary by programming several of his works. The celebration begins Oct. 22 when the PSO launches its 2017-2018 Sunday Classical Series.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, also known as “Jeremiah,” is a 1942 work in three movements for orchestra with a substantial mezzo-soprano vocal part. The text is sung in Hebrew from the Book of Lamentations, in which the prophet Jeremiah relates and comments on the destruction of Jerusalem more than 2,600 years ago.

The musical narration will be provided by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis, an up-and-coming young opera singer who has worked with Moody before. She teaches voice at the Music Academy of North Carolina.

Another Moody associate wrote the opening piece on the program. Mason Bates is one of the hottest U.S. contemporary classical composers. In the vocal department, Bates recently wrote an opera about Steve Jobs, which premiered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this past summer.

For Sunday’s concert, Moody has selected Bates’ “Book of Matthew,” which is part of a larger cycle of vocal works. The score calls for organ and 12-part chorus, with the vocal horsepower to be supplied by ChoralArt’s Masterworks Choir under the direction of Robert Russell, their longtime music director and retired professor.

The Masterworks Choir will also appear in the final work on Sunday’s program, English composer Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man,” also known as “A Mass for Peace.” (If this sounds familiar, that’s because Portland Ballet adapted it to dance and performed it at least twice in recent years.) This too uses texts from the Bible and other sources.

The composer is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music. His background includes both jazz saxophone and classical oboe, which certainly suggests his fusion approach to composition.

Moody, who is in the final year of his decade-long tenure with the PSO, will be on the podium.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra presents “A Centennial Celebration of Leonard Bernstein” at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ

Halloween is approaching, and musically speaking, that means that the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ are screening a silent horror movie from the 1920s with live accompaniment.

This year’s choice is “Phantom of the Opera,” a 1925 film starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. It is based on the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel of the same name and has been adapted for stage and film many times. The story concerns the relationship between a beautiful young opera singer and a reclusive musical genius with a hideously deformed face.

FOKO has engaged renowned organist Tom Trenney to play the 7,101-pipe Kotzschmar, improvising on the fly. The film’s dark dramatic style provides plenty of opportunity for creative interpretation.

Known for his improvisations on hymns, submitted themes, silent films, scripture, poetry and artwork, Trenney was awarded First Prize and Audience Prize at the American Guild of Organists’ 2006 national improvisation competition.

Trenney has performed on all the great organs of the U.S. and has visited Portland several times before at FOKO’s behest, most recently two years ago when he accompanied a screening of “Nosferatu.”

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ present Tom Trenney and “Phantom of the Opera” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards

Laura Cortese is self-proclaimed folkie, but her approach is distinctly modern and somewhat idiosyncratic, mixing very non-traditional instrumentation and performance styles. But her repertoire is straight down the middle, including very traditional English, Scottish and Irish songs.

This Saturday Cortese will appear with her three-woman backing band, the Dance Cards. Non-traditional instrumentation? How many folk ensembles include a cellist? Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards do. How many folk ensembles encourage listeners to dance? Same answer.

Formed in Boston with several members hailing from that city’s famed Berklee School of popular music, including herself, this excellent foursome has logged a lot of miles in this country and Europe, playing concert halls, coffeehouses and intimate music rooms. She’s also impressed a number of critics.

“Ambition often follows talent, and Laura Cortese has an embarrassment of both,” writes John Wenzel for the Denver Post. “Her open-armed approach to her art reveals a determination to spread the word about folk music and dance without watering down their distinctiveness.”

Wenzel adds: “Cortese’s mix of modern and traditional styles creates an explosive sound that favors melody and rhythm over overtly technical performances.”

Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards are currently touring in support of their latest album, “California Calling.” The opening act is another female folkie, Dori Freeman, who hails from Virginia.

Catch Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards at 8 p.m. Oct. 21 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 871-1757.

American composer Leonard Bernstein in 1955. The Portland Symphony Orchestra will present Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” this Sunday.

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