Out & About: Renaissance Voices, Cornils, 'Phyzgig' cap Christmas season

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The season for Christmas concerts and theatrical events is just about finished, with the holiday itself only a week away. The Portland Symphony’s “Magic of Christmas,” previewed here Dec. 9, still has a full second weekend to run, but there are only two major new concerts yet to come.

First up is Renaissance Voices, slated for Saturday at Portland’s Cathedral of St. Luke. Under the direction of Harold Stover, the 21-voice ensemble will present music from medieval times through the present.

This year’s “Christmas with Cornils,” an annual production of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, takes place Dec. 22 at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium. Christmas is also an appropriate time to recall that the massive organ, a world-renowned instrument with more than 6,800 pipes, was a gift to the city.

For more than a decade, the week between Christmas and New Year’s has been filled by Phyzgig, a multi-day celebration of physical comedy and theater produced by Westbrook-based Acorn Productions.

And following the turn of the calendar to 2010, arts producers and presenters take a significant post-holiday break. So let’s follow suit and go skiing. The next “Out & About” is scheduled for Jan. 20, when arts and entertainment action picks up a bit.

Renaissance Voices

Soaring voices and jubilant singing in a picture-perfect setting: That’s the key concept behind Renaissance Voices’ upcoming Christmas concert this Saturday at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland.

Renaissance Voices? It’s a 21-member ensemble that was formed 15 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-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 May. “Our 2009 Christmas program characteristically features sacred music from our namesake period and works from both earlier and later times,” Stover explains. “As always in our programs, the musical selections will be interspersed with readings of poetry and prose for the season.”

The Renaissance proper will be represented by pieces by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose music exemplifies the period, and William Byrd, a contemporary (and possible acquaintance) of William Shakespeare. Other composers from that golden age include Francesco Guerrero from Spain and Jacob Arcadelt from Belgium.

The English Baroque Period will be represented by the towering figure of his age, George Frideric Handel and his most popular and enduring work: “Messiah.” The Christmas portions of that celebrated oratorio will be performed, interspersed by readings from the libretto.

Several pieces from later periods, right up to the present, continue to highlight England and British musical heritage. The most modern composer is Cecilia McDowell, a leading figure in contemporary British choral music. The Maine premiere of McDowell’s “Ave Regina” also represents Renaissance Voices’ ongoing effort to seek out and perform works by women composers.

Catch this concert Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. at St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St., Portland.

‘Christmas with Cornils’

Among Portland’s most beloved musical traditions is “Christmas With Cornils,” planned this year for Dec. 22 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 20th edition.

The event is sponsored by Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, and is organized by municipal organist Ray Cornils, who brings along many of his musical friends and colleagues.

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 and the Parish Ringers, a handbell choir that Cornils directs in Brunswick.

The Choral Art Society’s Camerata, a 20-voice a cappella chorus made up of members of the Choral Art Society, will appear at this event for the third year. Directed by Robert Russell, this select ensemble specializes in a cappella singing and a repertoire that spans the Renaissance through the 20th century.

For this 20th 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,” explains Cornils. “These joyous tunes capture the essence of the season: hope, joy, love and peace.”

Catch “Christmas With Cornils” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.


Action on the arts and entertainment calendar drops off 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 (not to be confused with the controversial political organization named Acorn). Co-artistic directors are Avner Eisenberg, best known a globetrotting “Avner the Eccentric,” and Michael Levine, best known as the impresario behind the “Naked Shakespeare” company.

Levine and Eisenberg have booked 11 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. Fifteen different shows are planned in three different formats in three different venues; two are in downtown Portland’s Arts District and one is located at Acorn’s own space in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook.

The cabaret format is more oriented toward adults, while “Phyzkids” is a more family-friendly presentation. Most of the shows are labeled “Vaudeville.” Several include music, by the fast-paced Phyzband, directed by Eisenberg’s wife, Julie Goell.

The best way to figure out what to see is to view the Web site, acorn-productions.org. Or call Acorn’s Westbrook studio at 854-0065.

Sidebar Elements

Renaissance Voices will present its annual Christmas concert on Saturday, Dec. 19.