Out & About: Stocking full of Christmas offerings

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As Dec. 25 approaches, southern Maine’s frenetic pace of Christmas A&E offerings continues, with a slew of quality shows scheduled over the next couple of weeks.

Oratorio Chorale has slated three performances of its “Sing We Noel” concerts for Friday and Saturday in Brunswick. Attendees will also hear a special women’s sub-unit of the 80-voice Chorale plus a handbell choir.

Renaissance Voices, a 20-plus-voice a capella ensemble, will perform its annual Christmas concerts on Saturday and Sunday in Portland.

Prefer country music to classical cantatas? Singer-songwriter Don Campbell presents his homespun Christmas show in Portland on Saturday.

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ will host the penultimate edition of “Christmas with Cornils” on December 20 in Portland. Guests include the Kotzschmar Festival Brass, Musica de Filia and a handbell choir.

Portland Ballet has three performances of its signature “Victorian Nutcracker.” The principal performance, which features a live orchestra, is scheduled for December 23.

Oratorio Chorale

When Emily Isaacson accepted the artistic directorship of the Oratorio Chorale in 2013 she brought a new energy and expansive vision to the 80-voice ensemble, promising new programs and new approaches.

Two examples of Isaacson’s leadership will be seen and heard this weekend in Brunswick. Among Isaacson’s early moves was to create a new Christmas program for the Midcoast area. The result is “Sing We Noel,” a concert of traditional vocal music accompanied by a small chamber orchestra.

Another enhancement was Sweetest in the Gale, a 24-voice women’s sub-unit, which launched in fall 2015.

Both will be on display this Friday and Saturday, as “Sing We Noel” enters its third year, and Sweetest in the Gale (named for a phrase in a poem by Emily Dickinson) starts its second.

Isaacson’s hour-long program promises a celebratory and inspiring prelude to the season for listeners of all ages, with organ and handbell music, sing-along Christmas carols, spirituals, and traditional music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Claudio Monteverdi, Alice Parker and others. A cookie-and-cocoa reception follows.

Three performances are scheduled for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 27 Pleasant St. in Brunswick: Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Visit oratoriochorale.org.

Renaissance Voices

Since 1995, Renaissance Voices has been part of Portland’s vibrant cultural community, producing two concerts per year in its home city plus occasional visits to other towns. Music of the Renaissance was the original concept, but since about 2000 programming has also ventured into the 19th and 20th centuries. Presenting music by contemporary women composers has also become part of its mission.

The 20-plus-voice a cappella ensemble is conducted by Harold Stover, best known locally as the longtime former music director at Woodford’s Congregational Church in Portland. Since his retirement there, Stover remains active as a composer, conductor and organist.

This year’s Christmas program includes selections from the namesake period up to the present, which is represented by “Hail, Lady, Sea-Star Bright,” penned by 36-year-old Canadian choral composer Kathryn Rose. The composer says that this piece was informed by researches into medieval church manuscripts.

Renaissance Voices concerts also include short readings of poetry and prose appropriate to the season. Some of these are quite humorous. This year’s selections include excerpts from Carl Sandburg and Maine poet Wesley McNair.

Two performances are scheduled for St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland: Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 18 at 2 p.m. Call 773-9711.

Don Campbell

Yet another annual Christmas show is happening Saturday in Portland. Singer-songwriter Don Campbell, who grew up in Scarborough and now splits his time between Portland and Nashville, will perform his annual Christmas show on Saturday.

I’ve known Campbell since the early 1990s, when he released his first CD. Thirteen CDs later, I’m still a fan.

Half of Campbell’s recordings are original music. He has also released a pair of Christmas-themed CDs, which combine songs selected by his fans plus some original material. One particularly poignant song that he wrote is based on the annual trek of Christmas wreaths from Down East Maine to Arlington National Cemetery. Another was inspired by an incident that occurred while Campbell was gift wrapping presents at the Maine Mall as part of charity fund-raiser.

Catch Don Campbell and his band at 8 p.m. Dec. 17 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland, call 761-1757.

‘Christmas with Cornils’

When Ray Cornils was named Portland Municipal Organist in 1990, one of his first innovations was creating an annual Christmas program that revolved around the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, a gargantuan musical instrument that boasted about 7,000 pipes plus a bank of percussion instruments. He also suggested a simple name for the event: “Christmas with Cornils.”

Since its inception, the concert has grown enormously in popularity, but now there are only two more chances to hear it. Cornils announced his retirement last June, effective at the end of 2017. So this year’s “Christmas with Cornils” is the next-to-last.

This year’s version follows a now-familiar format. The star of course is the “Mighty Kotzschmar” with Cornils at the keyboard. Guest artists include the Kotzschmar Festival Brass (mostly members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra), a handbell choir from Brunswick (also directed by Cornils) and singers from Musica de Filia, a Portland-based ensemble of girls led by Jaye Churchill. Repertoire ranges from ancient to modern, classical to pop.

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

‘Victorian Nutcracker’

Since 1992, Portland Ballet has added a local twist to the familiar story of “The Nutcracker” by relocating its setting from Europe to the Victoria Mansion, and by renaming some of the characters in the first act – an elegant Christmas party for adults and children – as Portlanders of the late 19th century.

The change in no way detracts from the appeal of the original, with its celebrated score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa, and it certainly adds appeal to local history buffs like myself. I’ve seen “Victorian Nutcracker” at least half a dozen times since the local adaptation was begun, and I’m reserving my tickets for this year’s edition.

Three performances are scheduled. The first two are this weekend at 2 p.m. Dec. 17-18 at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center (at the middle school), 471 Stroudwater St. These will use recorded music. The final performance, with a live orchestra, is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Renaissance Voices, a 20-plus-member a capella ensemble, will perform its annual Christmas concert twice this weekend in Portland.

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