Out & About: Vocal ensembles celebrate Christmas

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With Thanksgiving behind us, it’s time for jingle bells and the Christmas countdown in the performing arts. This week’s picks of the tix include two events with Christmas themes plus two that don’t.

My favorite annual Christmas concert is performed the first weekend in December of each year by ChoralArt. “Christmas in the Cathedral” is profoundly moving, and it’s an absolute must-not-miss in my book. Four performances are slated for Saturday and Sunday in Portland.

Portland Community Chorus is another fine southern Maine vocal ensemble. Two performances of “Yuletide” are scheduled for Friday and Saturday in South Portland.

The second performance of the Portland String Quartet’s 50th subscription series takes place on Sunday.

Broadway at Good Theater is an annual event that’s scheduled for six Portland performances beginning Dec. 5. The theme is Broadway musicals of the 1980s.


I attend about a dozen Christmas-themed performances every December, and over the years I’ve sampled all the annual events and many of the special one-offs.

Among the annuals, my absolute favorite is “Christmas at the Cathedral,” a spirited and spiritually uplifting performance produced by ChoralArt (formerly Choral Art Society) under the direction of Robert Russell, a retired University of Southern Maine music professor who has helmed this ensemble for most of its 47 years.

The program features familiar and sublime choral music with brass and organ accompaniment.

Two pieces are performed every year. “Personent hodie voces puerulae” is a Latin hymn dating from the late 1500s. Arranged for ChoralArt by Russell, it’s the enemble’s signature work. The second, also a signature showcase, is an aural and visual version of Surround Sound: “Silent Night” is performed with the singers lined up on both sides of the cavernous cathedral, holding candles.

Russell also emphasizes other pieces he has programmed, including Paul Halley’s dynamic “Freedom Trilogy” and Eric Whitacre’s luminous “Lux Aurumque.”

Four performances are slated for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St. in Portland: Dec. 1 at noon and 7 p.m. and Dec. 2 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call 828-0043.

Portland Community Chorus

A few years ago a ski buddy mentioned that she was a member of the Portland Community Chorus, and that an annual Christmas concert was coming up. So I attended a performance and since then I’ve been a regular. “Yuletide” is the title, and it’s given the Friday and Saturday of the first weekend in December each year.

Music director is Rob Westerberg, who is choral director at York High School and is also the past president of the Maine Music Educators Association and chairman for the Maine All State Music Festival in both 2005 and 2006. Westerberg’s ensemble is one of Maine’s biggest; about 100 singers take the stage for most concerts.

The program mixes traditional with contemporary, spanning styles that include European Classical, English Traditional, American Negro Spiritual and American Tin Pan Alley/Hollywood.

Two performances are scheduled for South Portland High School, 637 Highland Ave.: Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Visit PortlandCommunityChorus.org.

Portland String Quartet

Forty-nine years ago, Paul Vermel, then the maestro of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, established the Portland String Quartet as a small sub-unit of his larger ensemble. It marked a milestone in the city’s cultural renaissance, a process that continues to the present.

Twelve years later, the PSO connection was severed and the PSQ has been an independent entity ever since. I’ve been a regular PSQ concert attendee since 1993. The 2018-2019 season marks the foursome’s 50th, and it continues this Sunday with a program of masterpieces.

The four musicians – violinists Dean Stein and Ron Lantz, violist Julia Adams and cellist Andrew Mark – have chosen to feature three composers of very different eras and musical styles. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart represents the apotheosis of the Classical period, while Johannes Brahms epitomizes the Romantic. In the 20th century, Bela Bartok ranks among the most important classical composers of the Modern era.

Catch the Portland String Quartet on Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. at Woodford’s Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St. in Portland. Call 761-1522.

‘Broadway at Good Theater’

Last week I devoted some column inches to “Blueberries, Broadway & Brian 2.0,” the one-man autobiographical show about theater aficionado and expert Brian P. Allen and his connection to New York musical theater.

This coming week, Allen gets to show another side of his expertise: He’s the producer and director of the annual “Broadway at Good Theater.”

This past fall I took Allen’s Broadway theater course at the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning, and I was truly and very favorably impressed by his knowledge of the subject. This fall’s featured theme was musicals of the 1980s, a decade in which Allen saw the original productions of all the hit show of that decade – plus most of the flops.

The 2018 edition of “Broadway at Good Theater” has a similar focus. Expect plenty of songs from the hit shows of that decade, plus a few of the best numbers from the shows that failed at the box office.

The musical that dominated Broadway in the early part of the decade, winning seven 1980 Tony Awards, was “Evita,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Allen’s Broadway star for 2018 is Valerie Perri, who created the role of the title character in the national tour. Perri will perform two of her signature songs from “Evita,” the celebrated “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and the fierce “Buenos Aires.”

Perri will also perform numbers from “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” and “Sophisticated Ladies.” She recently starred in the title role in an acclaimed production of “Hello, Dolly!” as well as several productions of “Sunset Boulevard.”

Joining Perri for these concerts is the company’s other special guest, Daniel Patrick Smith, who is returning for his third edition of this show. Local cast members are Emily Akeley, Peter Allen, Marissa Brown, Todd Daly, Marie Dittmer, Laura Houck, Jim Gaddis, Gusta Johnson, John Lanham, Steve Leighton, Conor Riordan Martin, Lynne McGhee, Jen Means and Shannon Thurston. The singers will be joined by musical director Victoria Stubbs, who will lead the three-piece band.

Six performances of “Broadway at Good Theater” will be presented at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland: Dec. 5 at 7 p.m., Dec. 6 at 7 p.m., Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. Call 835-0895.

“Christmas at the Cathedral” is the annual holiday concert given by ChoralArt. Four performances are scheduled for Dec. 1-2 in Portland.