Out & About: Remembering the Beatles, baseball's black slugger

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The top events on the upcoming arts and entertainment calendar have a distinctly retrospective aspect.

Fifty years ago America was experiencing the peak of Beatlemania, sparked by the first U.S. appearances of the sensationally popular rock-and-roll foursome from Britain. The Portland Symphony Orchestra, operating in Pops mode, will relive those heady days with “Classical Mystery Tour” this Saturday and Sunday.

And as May arrives, summer approaches and baseball season moves into high gear. Portland Ovations will close its fall-winter-spring performance season on May 8 with the world premiere of a new opera about the greatest baseball player you’ve probably never heard of: Josh Gibson, star of the Negro League of the 1930s and 1940s. “The Summer King” was written by Dan Sonenberg, a professor at the University of Southern Maine School of Music.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

When the Beatles arrived in the U.S. 50 years ago, they were already the most popular rock-and-roll band in the world. When the foursome broke up in the early 1970s, they had become the most complex rock band in history, creating a sound that was virtually impossible to produce in a live concert.

Some of those technical and artistic impossibilities will be overcome this weekend when the Portland Symphony Orchestra hosts a Beatles tribute band and recreates some of the Fab Foursome’s top hits, with an emphasis on the iconic late recordings, such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road.” Both those records achieved the rare combination of commercial success and critical acclaim.

PSO resident pop music expert (and concert manager) Joe Boucher noted some of the advantages of the symphonic format that will be employed this weekend. “The beauty of modern production now is that we can have a full symphony orchestra,” he commented. “You can have a band on stage, everything can be amplified and balanced and mixed so that you hear the full flower of what they were writing.”

Vocal, guitar and drum duties will be handled by Classical Mystery Tour, four rock musicians who have created a full orchestral approach to Beatles music and motor around the country performing pops concerts with symphonies such as the PSO.

Featuring members that look and sound like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, CMT will open with the Beatles as they appeared when they arrived in the this country, complete with black suits, thin ties and mop tops. From early hits through the post-breakup solo years, audiences will enjoy favorites like “Yesterday” with the accompanying string quartet, and “Penny Lane” with a live trumpet section.

Throughout the show, audiences will see and hear the transition to a more psychedelic sound, the addition of the orchestra and the later years when the band was beginning to dissolve.

Portland Symphony Orchestra presents “Classical Mystery Tour” for two performances at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: 7:30 p.m. May 3 and 2:30 p.m. May 4. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘The Summer King’

When Jackie Robinson donned uniform No. 42 and played infield for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he made history as the first black man to play Major League Baseball (or any of the four major professional sports).

Had baseball been integrated 10 years earlier, the pioneering honor would likely have gone to catcher Josh Gibson, the superstar slugger of the Negro League.

Today nearly every baseball fan knows the Robinson story, but few have ever heard of Gibson. (To be sure, Gibson was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. But his selection was by an obscure special committee that was charged with examining the sketchy historical records of the Negro League and identifying its brightest stars.)

On May 8, the stardom and struggles of Gibson will be remembered and honored when musical history is made in Portland. The world premiere of an opera based on Gibson’s life, “The Summer King,” will be presented at Merrill Auditorium as an original commissioned work by Portland Ovations.

The opera has been created by Dan Sonenberg, professor of music and resident composer at the University of Southern Maine School of Music. “The Summer King” is his idea. He wrote and orchestrated all of the music and co-wrote the libretto with Daniel Nester.

Sonenberg, a lifelong baseball fan, was drawn to the heartbreaking saga of the Negro League ball and became especially intrigued with Gibson. “The Summer King” portrays the injustice the slugging catcher – he was often called “the black Babe Ruth” – suffered at the hands of the Major Leagues’ so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” an unwritten pact that barred black players from baseball’s top tier.

On the positive, upbeat side of the coin, Sonenberg was equally fascinated by the thriving culture of the Negro League, characterized by black-owned teams, stadiums, taverns, nightlife and humor.

Plus there’s the personal narrative that’s so important to opera, highlighted by his love interests and the personal tragedy of Gibson’s drug use, which hastened his death. Ironically, Gibson died only three months before Robinson first trotted out to the grass at Ebbetts Field.

The cast – which includes singers and instrumentalists from New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Maine, Belgium and Germany – is led by maestro Steven Osgood, an assistant conductor at The Metropolitan Opera. Osgood also had a small hand in the creation; he directed American Opera Project’s nationally recognized Composers and the Voice Workshop Series, where the first scene of “The Summer King” got a workshop performance. Lemuel Wade, an internationally known singer-dancer-director, is helming the presentation.

Baritone Stephen Salters, who has performed throughout Europe, the U.K., Asia and the U.S., will perform the title role. Salters, who currently resides in Belgium, is well known to Boston audiences, especially for his work in a variety of musical mediums including recital, oratorio, opera and orchestra soloist.

Mezzo-soprano Lori-Kaye Miller has performed with New York City Opera, and made her Carnegie Hall debut as a soloist with the New England Symphony Ensemble. Miller will perform the role of Gibson’s lover in later years. Miller currently lives in Germany and is crossing the Atlantic specifically for this premiere.

Most of the pit musicians are members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra and/or professors at USM.

Portland Ovations presents “The Summer King” at 7:30 p.m. May 8 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

Two singers rehearse a scene from “The Summer King,” a new opera that is based on the life and times of Josh Gibson, the star of the Negro League of the 1930s and 1940s. The world premiere of “The Summer King,” written by Portland resident Dan Sonenberg, will take place May 8 in Portland.