Out & About: Romantic music, heroic music, harmonica music

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There’s plenty of music scheduled over the next wintry week in Portland.

Portland Symphony Orchestra continues its three-year series of Ludwig van Beethoven’s nine symphonies on Sunday and Tuesday, performing No. 3, subtitled “Heroic.”

If Valentine’s Day has you in a romantic mood, you might try an interesting take on that basic theme when violinist Ron Lantz and pianist Laura Kargul present the next musical episode in their occasional series featuring the love lives of the great 19th-century composers. That’s happening Sunday, as part of the Portland String Quartet’s subscription series.

James Montgomery is a nationally prominent blues artist who has based his lengthy career on harmonica virtuosity. He’ll appear this Friday.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Early in the 19th century there was a profound transformation in European musical styles, as the Classical Era gave way to the Romantic Era. Some musicologists pinpoint that change very precisely: the first performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in Vienna in 1805.

No. 3, subtitled “Heroic,” will be the big work on the program when the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of maestro Robert Moody, plays its next two concerts on Sunday and Tuesday.

In retrospect, the notion of “hero” was one of the hallmarks of music of the Romantic Era, and No. 3 was the first major work of its time to positively identify with a specific figure. Beethoven originally dedicated it to Napoleon. But when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, the composer scratched out the dedication in a fit of disgust and renamed his mighty symphony more generically as “Heroic.”

PSO program annotator Mark Rohr points out many of Beethoven’s innovations in No. 3, some of which were truly revolutionary.

“From our vantage point it is easy to overlook just how shocking these things were to Beethoven’s audience,” explained Rohr. “It was as if the composer, with this symphony, had erected a signpost marking the arrival of Romanticism and, consequently, the decline of Classicism.”

Two other pieces are on the program. Michael-Thomas Foumai’s “Becoming Beethoven” is a brand new work, commissioned by the PSO through its Young American Composers Competition. According to Foumai, it weaves musical themes from several of Beethoven’s nine symphonies into a story about the composer’s loss of hearing.

“Rhapsody in Blue” is a major work of American symphonic literature that dates from 1924. Written by George Gershwin and orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, “Rhapsody in Blue” is a jazz-inspired piano concerto that has been popular in concert halls around the world. The PSO’s performances will feature Kevin Cole as the soloist.

Cole is a Gershwin specialist, as explained by Howard Reich, music critic for the Chicago Tribune: “Cole captures the crackle of Gershwin’s pianism, the briskness of his tempos and the wizardry of his technique.”

Reich adds: “Yet the exuberance of Cole’s work, as well as its improvisational feeling, remove his playing from the realm of imitation. Gershwin sounds alive and present when Cole is at the keys.”

Two performances are slated for Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: Feb. 15 at 2:30 p.m. and Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Ron Lantz and Laura Kargul

The great composers of late-18th and early-19th centuries wrote what is treasured today as passionate, enchanting music that inspires romantic feelings, but what about the secret romances of their own lives?

That question is the starting point for the annual Valentine’s concert by two of Maine’s most popular classical musicians: violinist Ron Lantz and pianist Laura Kargul. This Sunday Lantz and Kargul will perform a program of music from the Romantic Era. Additionally, they will focus on great composers who harbored secret loves, or at the least, maintained unconventional romantic liaisons.

Featured works include Johannes Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3, arrangements of several of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” plus other works by Robert Schumann, Antonin Dvorak and Gabriel Faure.

The concert revolves around passion and romance, according to Kargul.

“We couldn’t play a program like this without returning to the passionate relationship between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann,” said Kargul, who is celebrating her 25th year as professor of music and director of keyboard studies at the University of Southern Maine School of Music.

“No one can say definitely what transpired because they destroyed so much of the evidence,” she added. “But it is clear that they tried for their entire lives to keep the truth a secret. Their closest friends, and even Clara’s children, knew that it was not for public knowledge.”

Lantz pointed out that although Mendelssohn projected a public image as the archetypal devoted family man, there is evidence that he had a secret liaison with a famous European performer.

Lantz is best-known as one of the founding members of the Portland String Quartet, which formed in 1969. He and Kargul have been performing occasional concerts together for the past few years. I’ve attended a number of them, and find them beautiful musically and very informative.

And very funny. Kargul deftly combines erudition with wit, and Lantz is equally entertaining. If they ever decided to quit music and start a comedy duo, I think they’d be very successful.

This Sunday’s concert is part of the PSQ’s 2014-2015 subscription series, slated for 2 p.m. at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call the LARK Society at 761-1522.

James Montgomery

For most blues bands, the front-man plays either guitar or piano. Or occasionally he plays bass. But harmonica?

That’s one of the defining traits of the James Montgomery Blues Band, which is based in Rhode Island and has been playing concert halls and clubs around the world for close to 40 years.

A native of Detroit, Montgomery started his musical career in 1970 while a student at Boston University, and within a few years his energetic performances drew audiences and attracted critical attention. By the mid-1970s his eponymous band attained the lofty status of one of Boston’s top three pop groups, along with J. Geils and Aerosmith.

He has released six albums under his own name, and collaborated on dozens of others.

Throughout his long career, Montgomery has collaborated with fellow musicians, and the people he’s appeared with on stage or in the recording studio reads like a “Who’s Who” of today’s music. For this Friday’s appearance in Portland, he’ll share the stage with another up-and-coming musician, country singer Lexi James.

Catch the James Montgomery Blues Band at 8 p.m. Feb. 13 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.

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James Montgomery, a nationally prominent blues artist who has based his lengthy career on harmonica virtuosity, will appear this Friday, Feb. 13, at Portland’s One Longfellow Square.

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