With Thanksgiving behind us, attention turns to the next big holiday on the calendar: Christmas. And that means a blizzard of Christmas music over the next three weeks. But not entirely.
Among southern Maine’s top choices is this weekend’s “Christmas at the Cathedral,” the annual concert by the Choral Art Society plus a number of its cohorts and partners. Artistic Director Robert Russell will lead a program that includes music from the 16th through 21st centuries, including one new work that’s based on poetry by Portland native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
More new and contemporary music is on tap for this Saturday’s concert at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, and the Christmas connection equals a big zero here. The featured piece will be a new composition by retired Bowdoin music professor Elliott Schwartz.
Portland String Quartet is also resisting the urge to play “Jingle Bells” and frothy seasonal music. This Sunday’s concert will feature two of classical music’s most notable works, quartets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Christmas at the Cathedral
I count myself among the many traditionalists who are profoundly turned off by the blizzard of over-hyped, in-your-face commercialism that seems to dominate contemporary Christmas celebrations.
For a pleasing, harmonious and spiritual experience that is totally in keeping with the core concept of the season, in recent years I’ve turned to southern Maine’s most remarkable holiday concert, the Choral Art Society’s annual Christmas at the Cathedral. I’ve attended for the past few years, and this outstanding concert has become one of my personal favorite observances.
Under the direction of Robert Russell, a longtime University of Southern Maine professor, CAS offers a program that exalts the traditional music of the Advent season, augmented by modern works that are in total harmony with those traditions.
Joined by the Portland Brass Quintet plus Dan Moore on the cathedral’s organ, CAS will perform a variety of traditional and modern Christmas music. The oldest pieces on the 2009 program are based on 16th-century themes. Annual favorites include the “Hallelujah Chorus” from “Messiah” and the audience is invited to join in on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World.”
Each year’s concert includes the signature processional, “Personent Hodie,” an arrangement of a Renaissance tune for brass and organ. The concert concludes with “Silent Night” performed by singers holding lighted candles and encircling the hall.
The most intriguing item on the 2009 program is a choral arrangement of some wintry verses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, America’s favorite poet of the 19th century. Born in Portland and educated at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Longfellow epitomizes America’s Romantic aesthetic in literature.
Charles Kaufman, a bassoonist who is active in traditional music circles in Maine and Boston, has adapted five stanzas from three poems – mostly dealing with snow and nautical themes – in a work titled “A Longfellow Winter.”
“I’ve chosen snowy Longfellow texts representing early-mature to later writings,” explains Kaufman. “These texts offer colorful winter scenes that can be traced to Longfellow’s Portland roots. I’ve used various techniques to try to get the music to whirl around like snowflakes: cross rhythms, sudden harmonic shifts, rising and falling musical figures.”
“A Longfellow Winter” won second place in a national choral music competition in 2007.
Another Maine composer’s work is on the program. Patricia Van Ness will be represented by an excerpt from her “Nine Orders of Angels,” composed in 1996 and performed in Latin. (An English translation will be printed in the program.)
CAS has about 150 members. All singers are selected by audition; their goal is to enhance their personal musical experience and enrich the cultural life of southern Maine. In addition to their own slate of concerts, CAS performs a major work nearly every year with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
Four performances are planned this weekend at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St. in Portland: Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 6 at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. In addition, a “special preview” concert will be held on Saturday, Dec. 5, at noon. Call 828-0043.
Bowdoin New Music Ensemble
Since 1964, Elliott Schwartz has been a fixture at Bowdoin College as professor of music and resident composer. Although he retired some years ago, he’s still extremely active in the college’s vibrant music scene. This past spring the Portland Conservatory of Music debuted a new Schwartz piece for seven Bowdoin students called “The Facebook Chronicles,” based on texts drawn from that wildly popular social networking website. This Saturday it will be performed at Bowdoin for the first time, part of a concert of new music.
“There are two ideas behind ‘The Facebook Chronicles,'” explains Schwartz. “One is the creation of different chamber music textures, within which the musicians speak as well as play their instruments. The other is the use of quotes from Facebook profiles as the source of all the words. The seven performers – being college students – are all Facebook users, as am I, and their own profile statements are embedded in the texture. The performers are asked to speak/shout/whisper/act as well as play their instruments. Their texts are taken from Facebook profiles. Some of the quotes are amusing, others are thoughtful and provocative. I enjoyed thinking about their musical potential and tailoring them to my needs.”
Other items on the concert program include excerpts from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” a work by Barney Childs for solo cello and improvisation ensemble, plus a new composition by Akiva Zamcheck, a Bowdoin student.
The free concert is slated for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at Studzinski Hall on the Bowdoin campus.
Portland String Quartet
There’s nothing new in the Portland String Quartet’s concert this weekend, the second in the subscription series.
Two landmarks of musical history by two exceptionally famous 18th- and 19th-century composers are slated. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Quartet in C Major, subtitled “Dissonance,” is especially noted for the harsh effects in its opening passage, which was much debated after the composer’s lifetime. Some 19th-century musicians attempted to “correct” Mozart’s score, but today’s scholars believe that he knew exactly what he was doing.
Of Ludwig van Beethoven’s many string quartets, none is better known than the C-sharp Minor. Constructed in seven movements that are played without pause, it’s especially notable for its middle section, which presents a theme shared by the two violins, followed by eight variations.
Catch this concert at 2 p.m. Dec. 6 at Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call the LARK Society at 761-1522.