Out & About: Some things old, some things new

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Mixing old and new seems to be the common theme of this week’s top choices on the arts calendar.

Portland Ballet’s spring program comprises two contrasting elements: the second act of a classical blockbuster, plus three contemporary creations. Two performances are slated for Friday and Saturday in Westbrook.

Portland Symphony Orchestra will wrap up its Pops! season this Saturday and Sunday with a visit by fiddle virtuoso Mark O’Connor, a force in contemporary music who draws inspiration from the past.

The University of Southern Maine School of Music wraps up its Faculty Concert Series on Friday in Gorham with an evening that showcases new directions in jazz as informed by the past.

Lula Wiles is a trio of singer-songwriters from Maine who are making waves with a contemporary style that is rooted in bluegrass. Catch them Sunday in Portland.

Portland Ballet

The juxtaposition of traditional terpsichorean art with very contemporary choreography is central to Portland Ballet’s spring program..

I recently dropped by the company’s Forest Avenue studios to watch a rehearsal and chat with artistic director Nell Shipman and executive director Michael Greer. I was quite impressed by what I saw and heard.

The first item of Friday’s program will be the entire second act of “Swan Lake,” the blockbuster classical ballet that has been a popular favorite since its 1877 debut. Characters include a lovely princess who lives under a curse, an evil sorcerer, a handsome prince and a corps of ballerinas.

The second half of the program will showcase three contemporary works. I saw “Spoke of the Wheel” rehearsed. Choreographed by Shipman, “Spoke” was successfully debuted several years ago. A collaboration with visual artist Michael Winkler, “Spoke” tells an ancient story in contemporary terms.

“It’s about the beginnings of interpersonal communications,” Shipman told me. “It’s about the birth of language – using an art form that doesn’t use spoken words.”

Greer told me: “This program will give audiences an opportunity to see the full range of our company. ‘Swan Lake’ is of course totally classical ballet, but the second half of the program demonstrates that we go far beyond tutus and pointe shoes. We’re also very contemporary.”

Two performances are slated for the Westbrook Performing Arts Center (at Westbrook Middle School), 471 Stroudwater St.: April 28 at 7:30 p.m. and April 29 at 2 p.m. Call Portland Ballet at 772-9671.

USM Faculty Concert Series

“Cookin’ in the Kitchen” is the title of the finale of the University of Southern Maine School of Music’s Faculty Concert Series. This Friday’s wrap-up will feature seven members of the school’s jazz faculty.

Friday’s program will be directed by trumpeter-pianist Chris Klaxton, joined by vocalist Taylor O’Donnell, saxophonist Barry Saunders, trombonist Chris Oberholtzer, guitarist Gary Wittner, bassist Bronek Suchanek and drummer Les Harris, Jr.

The subtitle of the program proclaims its overarching theme: “The jazz traditions of our forefathers blended with popular music of today.”

Klaxton’s program will include several compositions from the jazz canon: Clark Terry, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Add several arrangements of pop composers such as David Bowie, The Police, Beach Boys and Beatles. Top it off with several of Klaxton’s own original compositions, which lean heavily on elements of rock and hip-hop, performed within a jazz ensemble that allows various forms of improvisation.

Klaxton explains his reasoning: “We aim to illustrate traditional elements of improvisation and swing (groove) throughout the performance, particularly as we delve into our favorite pop radio hits and original compositions.”

Catch “Cookin’ in the Kitchen” at 8 p.m. April 28 at Corthell Concert Hall on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus. Call the music box office at 780-5555.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Mark O’Connor, a contemporary exponent of American musical traditions, is one of the most-honored guests the Portland Symphony Orchestra has ever invited. Holder of three Grammy Awards and six-time honoree of the Country Music Association, fiddle virtuoso O’Connor sits at the apex of American music.

O’Connor’s roots are country and bluegrass, but he frequently collaborates with classical artists – Yo-Yo Ma is one outstanding example – and enjoys performing on the pops programs of symphony orchestras.

That’s how O’Connor arrives in Merrill Auditorium this weekend, as the guest artist on the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s final Pops! program of the current season. He and the PSO will perform under the baton of assistant conductor Andrew Crust.

Works on the program are entirely American, including pieces by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. O’Connor’s own Fiddle Concerto will be a highlight.

Portland Symphony Orchestra presents two performances of “American Fiddle” at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: April 29 at 7:30 p.m. and April 30 at 2:30 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Lula Wiles

Three years ago, a trio of women singer-songwriters from Maine who were living in Boston formed a group and began performing under the name Lula Wiles. As children, Ellie Buckland, Isa Burke and Mali Obomsawin had all attended the Maine Fiddle Camp in Montville, and as young adults they gravitated toward Boston and its famed Berklee College of Music.

Lula Wiles’ vocal and instrumental style is rooted in American bluegrass: simple, straightforward and honest. Success in live performances spurred the recording of their eponymous debut album, which was released last year. I attended one of their concerts last summer and was highly impressed by Lula Wiles’ writing style and delivery.

Here’s a commentary by Buckland on the genesis of “Don’t Ask Why,” the third track on the album. Although Buckland’s comments strictly apply only to this particular song, I believe that they represent the spirit of Lula Wiles.

“‘Don’t Ask Why’ is an exploration of human strife, loss, and death and the helplessness one can feel in the face of it,” Buckland explained. “The story comes from a time when my younger brother’s life hung in the balance. I vividly remember the little field of wildflowers I was standing in when I got the call from my dad, telling me my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury.

“As my brother recovered over the next many months, I wrote this song in an attempt to voice the vulnerability I felt during that experience. I’ve always been fascinated by the old folk songs with lyrics about unspeakable sorrow such as burying a child or murdering a lover, all sung with a plainspoken sense of honesty.”

Catch Lula Wiles at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland, at 8 p.m. April 30. Call 761-1757.

Lula Wiles is a Boston-based trio of singer-songwriters from Maine who are making waves with a contemporary style that is rooted in bluegrass. They’ll be in Portland on Sunday, April 30.

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