Out & About: ‘Rent’ 20th anniversary tour visits Portland

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In 1996 the buzz on Broadway was all about “Rent,” a pioneering rock musical by Jonathan Larson that depicted a group of impoverished New York artists devastated by the AIDS epidemic. “Rent” won rave reviews, copped big awards, had a very long run, and has spawned a movie adaptation plus several national and international tours. The latest bus-and-truck company visits Portland this Saturday.

Avant garde jazz artist Anna Webber and two sidemen will be featured this Friday as the Portland Conservatory of Music continues its Dimensions in Jazz series.

VentiCordi is an oboist-violinist duo that’s been making waves in Maine’s classical music community for the past eight years. The two musicians, oboe virtuoso Kathleen McNerney and violin wiz Dean Stein, hold forth in Portland on Sunday with three of their professional colleagues.

‘Rent’

Portland Ovations is launching its 2016-2017 Broadway season this Saturday with a musical that pushes a lot of buttons and rings many bells. Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” a rock opera which was the smash hit of the 1996 season, is both a compelling musical drama and a piece and picture of history as well.

Back when “Rent” was written, the AIDS epidemic was at its height, and a diagnosis meant almost certain death. Many playwrights crafted dramas around AIDS, but “Rent” is the only one with real staying power today – now that the disease can be controlled with a cocktail of drugs.

Another fascinating aspect of “Rent” is that it represents a faithful re-imagining of “La Boheme,” a famous opera with music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Luigi Illica. That classic opera revolves around a central character who is dying of tuberculosis, the pathological scourge of the 19th century.

Further interest derives from the debut of “Rent.” The show opened almost exactly 100 years after “La Boheme.” And even more fascinating, composer-librettist Larson never saw a full production: He died a few hours after the final dress rehearsal.

“Rent” was a huge hit with both critics and audiences. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical, and “Rent” stayed on Broadway for more than 12 years.

Like its 19th century progenitor, “Rent” follows a group of impoverished artists who can barely afford to keep a roof over their heads. (The title derives from an early musical number in which their landlord is fooled into accepting an IOU instead of cash – like “La Boheme.”)

The principal characters in “Rent” are typical of the many and varied artists who inhabit today’s Greenwich Village in New York City. The plot revolves around the ill-fated romance involving a rock guitarist-composer and an exotic dancer. Both are drug addicts who have contracted AIDS.

In addition to the Tony Award for Best Musical, “Rent” also won Best Book and Best Score. It was nominated for 10 Drama Desk Awards, winning six.

“Rent” has been adapted to film, and there have been several touring companies that have criss-crossed the U.S. and the world over the past two decades. I first saw “Rent” when Portland Ovations hosted an earlier tour some years ago, and I’ve reserved my tickets for this Saturday.

The 20th anniversary national tour of “Rent” will motor into Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall on Nov. 5 for two performances: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Anna Webber and Simple Trio

Anna Webber, a jazz composer who also plays saxophone and flute, is firmly entrenched in the avant garde musical scene in Brooklyn, New York. She’s the pivotal artist in the Simple Trio, which is visiting the Port City this Friday, part of the Portland Conservatory of Music’s ongoing Dimensions in Jazz series.

Simple Trio comprises Webber plus two sidemen: pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck. The music is mostly written by Webber, who begins with a theme that she selects from random sources. She then expands, embellishes and develops it into her own genre-defying compositions.

Webber wants to blur the line between composed and improvised material, creating frameworks for improvisation that will challenge musicians to expand beyond the realm of what they normally play. She is committed to experimenting with the jazz form, pushing her to challenge conventions as well as her own impulses.

Last week Simple Trio released a CD titled “Binary,” and Webber and company are currently touring in support. I expect that Friday’s Portland appearance will be a wonderful experience.

“Because we’ve been playing, touring, and recording together as a band as well as in various projects for several years now, our musical interaction since the last album has evolved considerably,” Webber said. “John and Matt are fantastic to compose for and improvise with because they have the ability to play challenging music in a way that feels relaxed and natural.”

Catch Anna Webber and her Simple Trio at 8 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Portland Conservatory of Music, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call 775-3356.

VentiCordi

Among Maine’s numerous chamber music ensembles, none is more interesting than VentiCordi, which was formed eight years ago and has enjoyed considerable success. What’s so interesting? Start with the name and concept: VentiCordi is Latin for “winds-strings,” and the principals are oboe virtuoso Kathleen McNerney and violinist Dean Stein. It’s a very unconventional combination of instruments, and there’s very little suitable repertoire.

To get around this problem – and turn it into an opportunity – McNerney and Stein invite fellow professionals to play a captivating variety of works that involve one or both of themselves. This often involves modern composers who write for unconventional musical forces. In a similar vein, it tends to minimize the number of pieces written by the big names in the classical pantheon.

I’ve attended a number of performances during their eight seasons, and I appreciate the interest and variety that McNerney and Stein bring to the concert hall.

This Sunday’s concert offers typical VentiCordi fare. Five musicians will play five pieces by five composers: Andrea Clearfield, Madeleine Dring, August Klughardt, Nino Rota and Erwin Schulhoff. Of these, Rota is probably the best known, mainly for his film scores, especially “Godfather II.”

McNerney and Stein have invited three guest artists: double bassist William Blossom, flutist Sarah Brady and pianist Bridget Convey. The first two hail from greater Boston, while Convey lives in the Brunswick area.

Catch VentiCordi at 2 p.m. Nov. 6 at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call the LARK Society at 761-1522.

‘Light My Candle’ is one of the iconic scenes from “Rent,” the groundbreaking rock musical by Jonathan Larson that debuted on Broadway in 1996. The 20th anniversary national tour will visit Portland this Saturday.

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