Out & About: Renaissance Voices, 'Christmas with Cornils' and 'Phyzgig'

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Christmas and New Year are rapidly approaching, so it’s time to wrap up southern Maine’s arts and entertainment coverage for 2010.

Tops in the Christmas department is an annual production of Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ. “Christmas with Cornils” is FOKO’s biggest annual offering. I’ve attended quite a few years, and it’s a truly moving experience. Mark that one for Dec. 20 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

Another outstanding Christmas event is Renaissance Voices’ annual concert, slated for two Portland dates this season: Dec. 18 and Dec. 19. Under the direction of Harold Stover, the 21-voice ensemble will present music from medieval times through the present.

And that wraps up Christmas. Just before the January doldrums strike, there’s another annual offering, Acorn Productions’ “Phyzgig,” a multi-day celebration of mimes, jugglers, magicians and other artists who collectively perform under the “physical theater” rubric. Phyzgig is sandwiched between Christmas and New Year at several venues in Portland.

And this column will be taking some time off, first for the holidays and then because of the January doldrums. Out & About returns Jan. 19 when the arts calendar shows a bit more action.

Renaissance Voices

Exultant voices and jubilant spirit in a picture-perfect setting: That’s the central concept behind Renaissance Voices’ two Christmas concerts this weekend in St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland.

When I attended for the first time last year, I was tremendously impressed by the ensemble’s vocal power and inventive programming. I’m now adding this concert to my annual list of must-do events.

Renaissance Voices is a 21-member ensemble that was formed 17 years ago by a group of Maine singers on tour in Europe. The group performs primarily a cappella, with a repertory that ranges from the medieval period to present times.

Since 2000 the ensemble has been under the baton of Harold Stover, a Juilliard School-trained organist who’s best known in Portland as the music director at Woodfords Church and as a frequent guest performer on the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ in Merrill Auditorium.

From 1977 to 1992 Stover served on the faculty of the New York School of Liturgical Music, where he taught organ, choral conducting, sight singing, music theory and church music history. In 1995 he was appointed to the faculty of the Portland Conservatory of Music, where he teaches organ and music theory.

Renaissance Voices gives two concerts a year, in December and late spring.

“Our 2010 Christmas program characteristically features sacred music from our namesake period and works from both earlier and later times,” Stover explained. “As always in our programs, the musical selections will be interspersed with readings of poetry and prose for the season.”

Some of these poetry readings are slyly humorous takes on the Christmas season.

Catch this concert Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland. Visit www.renaissancevoices.org.

‘Christmas with Cornils’

Among Portland’s most beloved musical traditions is “Christmas with Cornils,” planned this year for Dec. 20 at Merrill Auditorium, home of the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, the 6,800-plus-pipe pride of Portland since 1912. The upcoming performance will be the 21st edition of this Christmas classic.

The event is sponsored by Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, and it’s organized by municipal organist Ray Cornils, who brings along many of his musical friends and colleagues. Cornils is a professor at the University of Southern Maine School of Music and Bowdoin College.

Cornils plans a program with a varied selection of Christmas and holiday classics. The annual concert always concludes with a sing-along of traditional carols.

In addition to the organ as the star performer, the evening also includes performances by the Kotzschmar Festival Brass, mostly comprising music professors at the University of Southern Maine School of Music, and the Parish Ringers, a handbell choir that Cornils directs in Brunswick. Musica de Filia, a choir of girls directed by Jaye Churchill, will add vocal power.

For this 21st edition, Cornils emphasizes the tradition of the Christmas carol, a word that derives from Old French. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with developing the concept as an energetic and spiritual way of celebrating Christmas.

“What makes this program such great fun is presenting the incredibly vast variety of carols from various centuries, cultures and countries,” Cornils says. “These joyous tunes capture the essence of the season: hope, joy, love and peace.”

The current season is the Kotzschmar’s 98th. The Kotzschmar Memorial Organ was donated to the city of Portland in 1912 by Cyrus H.K. Curtis, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post. Curtis grew up in Portland and had been taught by Hermann Kotzschmar, the city’s most distinguished musician.

Catch “Christmas With Cornils” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.


Action on the arts and entertainment calendar decreases dramatically in late December, with the unofficial hiatus extending into mid-January. But one of the annual events that does take place in this time period is quickly becoming a southern Maine tradition. “Phyzgig,” billed as a festival of “physical comedy,” opens the day after Christmas and continues up to New Year’s Eve.

Phyzgig is staged by Acorn Productions. Co-artistic directors are Avner Eisenberg, best known for his globetrotting act called “Avner the Eccentric,” and Michael Levine, best known as the impresario behind Acorn Productions and the “Naked Shakespeare” company.

Eisenberg himself is the star performer, slated for New Year’s Eve. Other performers during the week include Jamie Adkins, Ambidextrous, Daniel Forland, the Shane Miclon-Aaron Dewitt duo, Karen Montanaro, Norman Ng, Drew Richardson, Phil Smith, Michael Trautman, Yo-Yo People and the Zany Umbrella Circus.

Levine and Eisenberg have booked 11 other acts, mostly clowns, dancers, mimes, prestidigitators, acrobats and others of similar ilk. Comedy and vaudeville are the two common denominators that link most of the guest artists. Levine proudly notes that he is producing one of America’s very few vaudeville festivals. Shows are planned in several different formats and venues, mostly in downtown Portland’s Arts District.

The cabaret format is more oriented toward adults, while “Phyzkids” is a more family-friendly presentation. Most of the shows are labeled “Vaudeville.”

The best way to figure out what to see is to view the website: www. acorn-productions.org on the Internet. Or call Acorn’s Westbrook studio at 854-0065.

Sidebar Elements

Ray Cornils at the keyboards of the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ. The organist and his instrument will be the star performers of the 21st annual edition of “Christmas with Cornils,” scheduled for Dec. 20 at Merrill Auditorium.