Out & About: ‘The Magic of Christmas’ returns

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The biggest show of southern Maine’s Christmas A&E season opens this weekend in Portland: “The Magic of Christmas,” the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual aural and visual spectacular, opens its 12-performance run on Friday.

Three other quality Christmas shows are also coming up soon. First is this Sunday, when St. Mary Schola, an early music ensemble, gives the first of three performances of its annual Christmas concert.

An independent musical group loosely affiliated with the University of Southern Maine School of Music is offering two Portland performances of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

Guitarist-singer-songwriter Dave Rowe has been teaming up for years with a pair of fellow musicians in a roots-oriented Christmas show in Auburn. This year one performance is slated for Portland.

‘The Magic of Christmas’

Maine’s top-drawing Christmas show opens this Friday for a two-weekend run. The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual “The Magic of Christmas,” which attracts about 20,000 attendees per year, features approximately 80 professional instrumentalists plus a professional singer and about 100 members of the Portland Community Chorus. Plus aerial acrobatics performed by Cirque de la Symphonie, a high-flying troupe that specializes in orchestral productions.

This year’s “Magic” program includes Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” a favorite excerpt from his celebrated “Nutcracker” ballet score. “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” are among the never-omitted selections of popular favorites. When performing the latter, musicians don festive headgear. An audience Christmas carol sing-along is included in the second half of the program.

Soprano Elizabeth Marshall, from the artist faculty at the University of Southern Maine School of Music, is the featured soloist. Cirque de la Symphonie acrobats will soar high over the orchestra and the first few rows of the audience.

Twelve performances are scheduled for Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall between Dec. 9 and Dec. 18. For complete schedule, call PortTix at 842-0800 or visit portlandsymphony.org.

‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’

A favorite musical tale of the Christmas season is “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” an opera that was written by Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti on commission from NBC television, which broadcast it Dec. 24, 1951.

For some reason it’s seldom produced in southern Maine. But for 2016, an independent production that involves a number of faculty and staff of the University of Southern Maine School of Music is scheduled for two performances this Friday and Saturday in Portland.

The opera is directed and produced by Kathleen Scott, a professor of music at the school, and will include several professional soloists and an orchestra plus singers from the community and church.

The opera is set in a town near Bethlehem and the biblical (Gospel of Matthew) story of the Magi is told from the point of view of a disabled young boy who hobbles around on a crutch and his desperately poor widowed mother. One night three mysterious kings come knocking on the door. They’ve been following a brilliant star, per God’s instructions, and seek shelter for the night.

Bring the family, urges Scott. “The best news for parents and grandparents of children, is that the show is extremely family-friendly as seen through the eyes of a young boy,” she says. “The story is very entertaining. How can you go wrong with an eccentric funny old king, processions, dancing and a miracle to top it all off?”

Two performances “Amahl and the Night Visitors” are slated for Williston-Immanuel United Church, 156 High St. in Portland: Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 10 at 4 p.m. Call 775-2301.

St. Mary Schola

One of the season’s most uplifting concerts is produced each year by St. Mary Schola, a professional ensemble that specializes in music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

I’ve attended the Schola’s Christmas concert for the past five years or so, and it’s become one of my favorites. This year’s program is titled “Natus Est,” and three performances are offered, once in Falmouth and twice in Portland.

Based at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Falmouth, the Schola comprises singers and instrumentalists under the direction of Bruce Fithian, a longtime professor at the University of Southern Maine School of Music.

The first half of the program focuses on the Advent theme of longing for a wise leader and preparation for his arrival. Composers from England, Spain, Holland, Austria and Germany will be represented.

The second half of the program is devoted to a Christmas cantata by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a French master of Baroque stylings. Charpentier’s “In Nativitatem Domini” is divided into two sections. The first half is centered on the Advent theme of longing for a savior, while the second relates the Christmas story itself.

Fithian explains the work’s appeal: “Charpentier strikingly contrasts the first section, which is filled with aching supplications and a very quiet depiction of the shepherds’ watch at night, with the second section, which explodes with the sparkling light of recorders and even a march. We cannot think of a more beautiful way to celebrate this season than by bringing to life this marvelous work.”

Catch St. Mary Schola’s “Natus Est” at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 43 Foreside Road in Falmouth at 4 p.m. Dec. 11 and at St. Luke’s Cathedral Church, 143 State St. in Portland at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13-14. Visit stmaryschola.org.

Dave Rowe Christmas Special

A 20-plus-year holiday musical tradition in Auburn is coming to Portland for the first time. That’s a quick summary of the intimate Yuletide gathering of three singer-songwriters that was originated in the early 1990s by the late Tom Rowe of Schooner Fare and his son Dave.

In its early days, pianist Phil House was included; since the elder Rowe’s death in 2004, guitarist-singer-songwriter Denny Breau has completed the threesome. All are accomplished singer-songwriters with their roots firmly set in American traditional music.

Now called the Dave Rowe Christmas Special, this show has been presented at a church in Auburn for more than 20 years. This year a Portland date has been scheduled.

Dave Rowe is currently in his 27th year as a professional musician, and has released 15 CDs, either solo or ensemble. Breau is the brother of the late Lenny Breau, plus he’s a longtime performer in his own right. House is a self-taught pianist who is at home in a number of styles and combinations.

Catch the Dave Rowe Christmas Special on Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual aural and visual spectacular, “The Magic of Christmas,” opens a 12-performance run Friday, Dec. 9.