By Scott Andrews
As we approach the end of January, we’re still waiting for the Big Winter Storm of 2009, but there’s a blizzard of music and musical theater heading our way this weekend.
Traditional fiddling phenom Lissa Schneckenburger gives a concert at Empire Dine and Dance in Portland this Saturday. She’s a native of central Maine who now lives in Vermont, so she’s no stranger to white winters.
Classical clarinet fans can revel in two outstanding events this weekend. First up is the Midcoast Symphony’s pair of concerts, given Saturday and Sunday in Lewiston and Topsham. Farmington clarinetist Karen Beacham is the guest soloist and there’s a wintry theme.
Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Sunday Classics series continues Jan. 25. Music director Robert Moody, a passionate skier, is likely sojourning at his Colorado winter retreat, but he’s invited guest conductor Christian Knapp to wield the PSO’s baton while William Hudgins, principal clarinet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, does solo honors.
The famous French Riviera resort of St. Tropez is far removed from winter snows, but musical theater fans need only travel to South Portland to see “La Cage Aux Folles,” the warm and wonderful Harvey Fierstein-Jerry Herman Broadway musical that’s set on the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean.
Fiddler Lissa Schneckenburger grew up in Litchfield, a not-so-sun-drenched hamlet in central Maine, and from a very early age she found herself immersed in traditional New England musical styles. Among the most important factors in her artistic development were Greg Boardman and his “Fiddle Camps,” annual gatherings that aim to preserve and perpetuate the old-time styles.
Schneckenburger’s fiddling is uplifting and lively, and her singing is gentle and evocative. Her formal musical training was at the New England Conservatory, and since graduating in 2001 she’s become one of the region’s foremost performers and advocates of the old-time Celtic-and-Maritime school of fiddling. Her most recent project has been researching traditional New England music with an emphasis on Maine; some results of that work were released this past spring as “Song,” a CD which includes pieces from the 18th century.
Now living in Vermont, Schneckenburger returns to her home state Jan. 24 to give a midafternoon acoustic workshop and perform a 7 p.m. concert at Empire Dine and Dance, 575 Congress St. in Portland. It is a co-production of Dave McLaughlin’s Heptunes, Acoustic Artisans and Empire Dine and Dance. Call Empire at 879-8788.
McLaughlin, a prominent New England concert promoter/producer, notes that Schneckenburger’s workshop-concert appearance is the first of a series of similar tripartite efforts he’s slated for Portland.
Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
I don’t know if the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra employs its own weatherman, or whether they have some other means of meteorological divination, but this weekend’s program is titled “Music for a January Thaw.” It will be given twice: Jan. 24 in Lewiston and Jan. 25 in Topsham.
The featured work will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s one-and-only Clarinet Concerto, and the featured soloist will be Karen Beacham, music prof at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A (K. 622) is best known for some of the loveliest melodies in classical music. They’ll be played by Beacham, who is popular among Maine classical audiences for solo, orchestral and chamber performances.
Beacham’s Midcoast Symphony connections include numerous mentoring sessions with the woodwind section, and orchestra members enjoy the delightful experience of accompanying their very personable teacher/coach as she brings her artistry to this masterpiece.
The Mozart concerto will be sandwiched between two works by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. Opening will be his dynamic and memorable “Slavonic Dances,” the popular orchestral suite which launched his career. Luscious tunes are also in abundance in Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. Although less frequently performed than his New World Symphony, No. 7 is a rich work that’s brimming with rhythmic intensity, dynamic contrasts, and beautiful melodies.
Midcoast Symphony Orchestra plays “Music for a January Thaw” twice this weekend: Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Franco-American Heritage Center at St. Mary’s Church (corner of Cedar and Oxford) in Lewiston, and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Orion Performing Arts Center at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham. Call 371-2028.
Portland Symphony Orchestra
Portland Symphony Orchestra hosts another top clarinetist Jan. 25, the second date in this season’s Sunday Classical Series. The guest soloist will be William Hudgins; since 1994 he’s occupied a first chair with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The program is titled “All-Mozart Matinee” and comes just two days before the 253rd anniversary of the composer’s birth. Four works are on the program, including the same clarinet concerto that’s being played more or less simultaneously in Topsham, as detailed above. The concerto is noted for its wonderful melodies and the intricate interplay between the soloist and orchestra.
Guest artist Hudgins is also a member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and is heard on a Grammy-nominated recording.
The podium will be occupied by another guest artist; Christian Knapp is a globetrotting maestro who’s equally at home in all genres from Mozart to modern.
Catch the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “All-Mozart Matinee” at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.
La Cage Aux Folles
“La Cage Aux Folles,” the warm, wonderful and wacky 1982 Broadway smash hit by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (score) makes a fine choice for Portland Players’ midwinter production. Set in the sunny Mediterranean resort of St. Tropez, overflowing with delightful melodies and bearing important and timely messages of personal identity and self-worth, “La Cage” swept most of the Tony Awards – including Best Musical – more than a quarter century ago and still remains a popular and powerful show.
I’ve seen “La Cage” many times, and I was charmed and uplifted by the Players’ production, despite its numerous weaknesses. Strong points include the dramatic chemistry between the two leads – Jaimie Schwartz and Jonathan Carr, playing a gay couple who run a nightclub populated by transvestites – plus the scenery and costumes by Steve Lupien and Paul Bell respectively.
Another highlight is the “Cagelles,” the comic corps of cross-dressing dancers, outlandish characters who open the show and reappear at critical junctures.
Unfortunately, none of Players’ voices do justice to Herman’s amazing score, which ought to be the highlight of the evening. I tried to mentally minimize this serious shortcoming, and hopefully others can do likewise.
Portland Players, 420 Cottage Road in South Portland, presents “La Cage Aux Folles” through Feb. 1 with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Call 799-7337.
Clarinetist Karen Beacham will be the featured soloist this weekend for a pair of concerts performed by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra.