Christmas is only two weeks away, and the last of the seasonal concerts are coming up fast. This year’s menu is pretty much the same as every year, with a few significant twists.

Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Magic of Christmas” concerts continue with a familiar face – at least to some – on the podium. Bruce Hangen, who inaugurated “Magic” nearly 40 years ago, will return as guest maestro for the dozen 2018 performances, beginning this Friday.

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ present their annual program on Dec. 18, but there will be a new face at the keyboard. James Kennerley, the 11th Portland municipal organist, will make his first Christmas appearance, appropriately titled “Christmas with Kennerley.” He’s tweaked the program too, and a solo vocalist has been added to the lineup.

Renaissance Voices return for their annual Christmas concerts, with two performances slated for Portland this weekend.

Need a change of pace from non-stop Christmas? Singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky has released a new album and will perform in Portland this Friday.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

Forty years ago, Russ Burleigh, then the general manager of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, had an idea. The Boston Symphony had held a very successful Christmas concert at the recently opened Cumberland County Civic Center, and Burleigh figured that his own orchestra could successfully do likewise.

At the time, Bruce Hangen was midway through his tenure as maestro, and in December of 1980, he stepped up to the podium and conducted the first of two sold-out “Magic of Christmas” concerts at Portland City Hall Auditorium. His formula was simple: light classical pieces connected to Christmas and winter plus a selection of popular Christmas songs arranged for symphony orchestra and voices.

The success of this debut effort led to southern Maine’s biggest Christmas season family tradition, and this Friday, “Magic of Christmas” returns for its 39th year, following roughly the same formula. And during this interim season – between former maestro Robert Moody and maestro-designate Eckart Preu – Hangen will return to the podium as guest conductor.

In keeping with tradition, the 100-voice Magic of Christmas Chorus will return under the direction of Nicolas Dosman. Special guests will be soprano Elisabeth Marshall and the Windham Chamber Singers.

Hangen’s program will include Christmas-y classical pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. The latter will be represented by two excerpts from “Messiah,” including of course the magnificent “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Modern popular composers include John Williams and Leroy Anderson. The latter’s “Sleigh Ride” is perhaps the single most popular piece in “Magic” each year, performed with orchestra members donning festive headgear and the trumpeters neighing like happy horses.

A couple of medleys of popular Christmas songs, arranged by Robert Shaw and Matt Naughtin, will be performed, and as always, the program will end with a Christmas carol sing-along. “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding!”

Twelve performances of “Magic of Christmas” will be performed at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall between Dec. 14 and Dec. 23. Call PortTix at 842-0800 or visit

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ

The humongous brass facade of the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ has been a dominating sight in Merrill Auditorium since it was installed in 1912 as part of rebuilding Portland City Hall.

For 2018 the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, a nonprofit support group, welcomed a new face at the instrument’s five-console keyboard: British-born James Kennerley, composer, music director and keyboard wiz, was named the 11th official municipal organist – one of only two such positions in the U.S. – and on Dec. 18 he steps on stage for his first Christmas program.

“Christmas with Kennerley” is a full evening of music. While the mighty Kotzschmar, with its 7,000-odd pipes and assorted sounds from its “toy box division,” will be the center of attention, there’s much more. Metropolitan Opera soprano Ashley Emerson, a Maine native, will perform along with a cohort from ChoralArt. The Parish Ringers, a handbell choir from Brunswick, will also be featured. Ditto the Kotzschmar Festival Brass.

Much of the program will be new: Kennerley is also a composer and arranger, and several of his new works will be performed for the first time.

Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ present “Christmas with Kennerley” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Renaissance Voices

Some new compositions will also be performed for the first time this weekend as Renaissance Voices wrap up their 25th season. The 23-voice a cappella choral ensemble is led by Harold Stover, a composer, choral director and organist.

Renaissance Voices’ annual Christmas concerts at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland have become a tradition in the city, and I’ve been a regular for about a dozen years. It’s an extraordinary experience that lingers long after the final notes fade away. I’ve already got my tickets for this year.

The 2018 edition features music of three local composers: Stover’s “For Christmas Day,” a new setting of Psalm 23 by Patricia Van Ness and “The Shepherds Sing,” by Tom Mueller. The latter was written specifically for Renaissance Voices and is dedicated to the ensemble.

Older pieces by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Francesco Soriano, Giovanni Gabrieli, Josef Rheinberger and Carlotta Ferrari form the core of the program.

Two performances are planned for St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St. in Portland: Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. Call 729-4958.

Lucy Kaplansky

New York singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky has just released her first solo album in six years, and she’s appearing in Portland this Friday to promote it.

She tells me that “Everyday Street” features harmonies by Shawn Colvin and Richard Shindell and is the most acoustically based, intimate album she’s ever made. It was recorded over four days and features Kaplansky and multi-instrumentalist Duke Levine on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandola, National (resonator) guitar, and octave mandolin.

Her email to me continues: “The opening song, ‘Old Friends,’ a duet with my long-time friend Shawn Colvin, is a reflection on our friendship and on our times together in the early days of the Greenwich Village folk scene. ‘Keeping Time,’ with Richard Shindell on harmony, is from my vantage point as a mother sharing our neighborhood’s rhythms, from a distance, with the late actor and father of three, Philip Seymour Hoffman. There are also four cover songs which have been fan favorites from my shows, including Nanci Griffith’s ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ and ‘Loch Lomond.’”

Catch Lucy Kaplansky Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Renaissance Voices will give two performances of their annual Christmas concert this weekend in Portland.

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