December 8, 2013

Classical Beat: Shed the muffs and open your ears

By Christopher Hyde

'Tis the season for music lovers to wear ear muffs. Not merely to mute department-store abominations, but also to avoid overexposure to traditional melodies that wear thin after the fourth or fifth repetition, not to mention the versions tricked out to sound like “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a football game. Austria has the right idea in prohibiting “Silent Night” from being played except on Christmas Eve. I like Handel’s Messiah, which is virtually impossible to perform well, once: at Easter.

Fortunately, in Maine there are antidotes, such as Sunday’s Christmas in the Cathedral (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, 8 p.m.). The Choral Art Society, under Robert Russell, reliably mixes the best of old and new music, sacred and profane. This year they have programmed, among other delights, Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” and a work by Hildegard von Bingen.

The Maine State Ballet Sunday concludes its series of “Nutcracker” ballets at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, a spectacular production with 300 dancers and a Christmas tree that rises from the stage. The Portland Ballet’s “Victorian Nutcracker,” a more intimate version, makes its debut at Merrill on Dec. 18, with live orchestra and chorus. The performance will be repeated at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center on Dec. 21, with recorded music.

The St. Mary Schola, known for its authentic performance of Renaissance and earlier music, will join two performances of “Christmas with Cornils” this year, Tuesday at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Lewiston and on Dec. 17 at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland.

The choir itself, under the direction of Bruce Fithian, will sing ancient songs of the season on Friday at St. Luke’s, Saturday at the South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport and Dec. 15 at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Falmouth.

The program will include works by Orlandus Lassus (1530-1594), Heinrich Schutz, Giovanni Gabrielli and several excerpts from Bach cantatas, accompanied by period instruments.

Another group that is able to convey the spiritual meaning of Christmas is Renaissance Voices, directed by Harold Stover. It will offer two programs at St.Luke’s, on Dec. 21 and 22, plus a third on Saturday at the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society in Springvale.

The first half will be dedicated to the group’s namesake period, with music by Jacob Handl, Soriano, Arcadelt and Aichinger.

The second half features a recent composition by Patricia van Ness, a Maine composer whose appearance on the program exemplifies the ensemble’s effort to perform works by women. A setting of the 67th Psalm by Charles Ives, an arrangement of “The Morning Star” by Virgil Thomson, seasonal pieces by George Whitefield Chadwick and selections from Supply Belcher’s “The Harmony of Maine” (1764) round out the program, which is becoming more and more popular each year.

Last but not least is the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s noted “Magic of Christmas” (Dec. 13-22), presenting traditional Christmas music as it should be heard, live, up-front and powerful. This year’s opening fanfare by American composer James Beckel is designed to segue directly into Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Festival” Overture.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

classbeat@netscape.net

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