This coming weekend will be one of celebration for the University of Southern Maine School of Music, when generations of USM alumni return for a musical homecoming.
The centerpiece will be a performance of the epic choral work “Carmina Burana,” scheduled for 3 p.m. April 22 at Merrill Auditorium. The USM Concert Band and Chorale will perform the piece, along with more than 50 School of Music alumni. Faculty member Peter Martin will conduct.
Scott Harris, director of the music school, noted that the weekend-long homecoming offers much more than the public performance at Merrill. Beginning Friday, there are master classes led by music alumni, and from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, the school will host an open house on the Gorham campus.
But no question, the big event is “Carmina Burana.” It’s a visceral, pulsating piece, full of rhythm and resonance.
Martin calls it colossal. “It is long, a little over an hour in length, but is divided into 25 sections — some only lasting a couple minutes. So it is also a lot of little short pieces. So it is long and short,” he said.
“It is big and little, with close to 200 performers on stage, and yet at times only one, two or three are performing. So if you love chamber music, this is the piece for you. And if you like the huge and colossal; well, it’s got that, too. It’s got the highest of the high ranges and the lowest of the low, and regarding tempo, it has the fastest of the fast and the slowest of the slow.”
It’s an ideal piece of music for a celebration. And the School of Music has much to celebrate, Harris said. The school has acquired additional space within its 134-year-old home on the Gorham campus, Corthell Hall, and is reconfiguring it to meet student needs.
“Saturday’s open house is a chance for everyone to take a look inside,” Harris said. “We know returning alumni will be pleased with the results, and I’m sure we’ll reminisce with them about how often in the past we had to make do with spaces not designed for music teaching and learning. But struggles did sometimes lead to fun and creativity — practicing in stairwells, classes on the lawn.”
The open house will also call attention to the successful careers of alumni by featuring CDs, programs, books and other creative work.
On Sunday, three of those alumni will take solo parts in “Carmina Burana”: Soprano Elisabeth Marshall, baritone Jason Plourde and tenor Martin Lescault.
All three have used their musical training to enrich their lives. Marshall lives in England and most recently performed with the Wexford (Ireland) Festival Opera and as the soprano soloist in Handel’s “Messiah” with the Hailsham Choral Society in England.
Plourde, a native of Caribou, has worked with opera companies around the country, including the Indianapolis Opera, the San Francisco Opera Center, Central City Opera and New York City Opera.
Lescault, who lives locally, has been a featured soloist with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, the Orlando Symphony and many others.
Marshall said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to Maine to celebrate, despite the inconvenience of overseas travel.
“USM meant a great deal to my development as an artist,” she wrote in an email. “This weekend means a great deal to me.”
Marshall transferred to USM about halfway through her undergraduate degree, “and that move definitely changed my life for the better. I was ready to drop out of school altogether.”
She auditioned for vocal professor Ellen Chickering, who made room for her in the vocal program. She also got a scholarship on short notice.
“It was definitely meant to be, and the education I received from USM gave me the best foundation I could ask for as an artist,” Marshall said.
USM music professor Robert Russell, who will help Martin prepare the singers for “Carmina,” said the weekend provides the opportunity to link current and former students and renew friendships.
“We seek at USM to make a connection with our students, not just musical but also in career guidance,” he said. “The fact that they are interested in returning for a day of exciting music making is deeply satisfying. I look forward to seeing them and to hearing their stories.”
To be sure, the weekend also shines a positive light on USM. The news out of Gorham and Portland these last few weeks has not been positive. There is faculty unrest and a call for changes at the very top of the administration.
Amid the uproar, the School of Music remains one the university’s best stories.
“We have great students, of whom we ask a lot,” Harris said. “For most of them, USM provides their first engagement with deep exploration of a subject from multiple perspectives, as well as professional expectations in the wider world. From our vantage point, these are key roles of the university, and we see them being fulfilled across many different fields and disciplines at USM.
“We have successes worth singing about, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: [email protected]