March 4, 2010

PSO benefit strikes absolutely all the right notes

— ALMOUTH FORESIDE — The house, beautiful. The company, wonderful. The food, spectacular. But the music ...

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Snapshots from a dinner on Thursday, October 22, 2009 at a Falmouth Foreside home won in auction to benefit the Portland Symphony Orchestra.d

Oh, the music!

There is no one adjective powerful enough to describe the music that flooded the home of Merle and Leonard Nelson Thursday night. They called the event an ''All-Star Evening,'' and indeed it was.

It was a Portland Symphony Orchestra fundraiser, performed at the Nelsons' impressive home for an intimate crowd of music lovers.

The Nelson's could just as well have called this the ''Unbelievable, Breathtaking Evening,'' as it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One living room with enough comfortable seating for 40 people. One VIP pianist in Martin Perry. One celebrity voice in tenor John McVeigh. And for a few pieces, one special treat: Vocal performances by Portland Symphony Orchestra Director Robert Moody.

Epicurean truly fits as a description because the dinner prepared in the Nelsons' private kitchen was designed exclusively for the event by Sam Hayward, chef and co-owner of Fore Street restaurant.

The kitchen alone was a thrill. The fridge looked like the kind in any proud mother's house -- covered in souvenir magnets, the treasured drawings of children, love notes and pictures of kids. Except, on this fridge, some of those pictures of kids just happened to be of Judd Nelson, an actor well known by those in my generation. He also is Merle and Leonard's son (and he'll be performing in Great Stories to Tell with the Portland Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 8). He was not there in the flesh on Thursday, though. Just on the fridge.

Even without his presence, I can certainly tell you how I felt about the whole thing: Star struck.

Among the guests were Brian and Debra McGrath of Kennebunkport (folks well-known in the world of opera); Brian Petrovek, owner of the Portland Pirates; artist Anne Ireland; Lance Vardis, sound recording engineer, who is IMDb-able; and Ron Bancroft, who has been a columnist for this paper for much longer than yours truly.

At this point, you are probably wondering how they all came to be at the Nelson's home for this one spectacular evening. It's a good story.

You see, during the symphony's spring fundraising campaign, Jeff Kane, president of National Distributors and member of the PSO Board of Trustees, came up with a great idea: Find somebody willing to host a concert at their home, invite well-known musicians to perform and also find somebody to prepare a sensational meal. Then, ask people to pay for an invitation to support the symphony.

It took little convincing to get all the players on board. McVeigh, who also owns Compositions at 13 Free St., gave more than his share by donating all the floral arrangements for the evening. Sara Petrovek and Pat Spock, both symphony supporters, took on the arduous volunteer task of coordinating the event.

How much were the tickets? That was the fun part. Only silent bids were accepted during the auction, with the understanding that only the top 20 of those bids would win seats. It was a genuine hit. The top bid alone brought in $1,500, said PSO Executive Director Ari Solotoff.

So, here they all were, the luckiest of the bidders, getting the absolute most for their money's worth nearly eight months later.

The meal of Maine Jonah crab, leek and carrot cream soup, venison loin, squash and beans, apple tarte tatin and pear mousse was sensational. It was served with wines that never stopped flowing. Wines labeled with luxurious words in romantic languages.

The company was indeed enjoyable. I was seated with Lance and his wife Gina Vardis, PSO Board of Trustees President Gordon Gayer, board VP Jim Konkel, his wife Sue, and Scott and Karen Holmes.

And then, again, the music. How to describe the music?

I knew it was going to be good. McVeigh's amazing selections ranged from the extremely difficult -- ''Erlkonig'' by Schubert, for example -- to the wildly popular -- ''Being Alive'' from Stephen Sondheim's musical ''Company.''

Now that I think about it, the words I am looking for to describe how I felt were there all along, woven seamlessly into the event.

It was a selection of music that reverberated through my spirit long after McVeigh was done singing it -- a piece written by Craig Carnelia for a musical called ''Diamonds.''

The title? ''What You'd Call A Dream.''

Staff Writer Giselle Goodman can be reached at 791-6382 or at:

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