Eckart Preu, the music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, felt the need to celebrate, however awkward that may feel after such a bleak year.

“How can we celebrate what we went through?” he asked. “But take the politics out of it, and let’s celebrate our land, our environment and what it represents. We all need it. We need to celebrate ourselves, celebrate resiliency and community.”

With those ideas in mind, Preu has programmed a season-opening concert, “Onward: A PSO Homecoming,” set for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at Merrill Auditorium – with a full orchestra and an audience in the house – that celebrates the natural beauty and wonder of Maine and the United States, as well as human capacity.

The program includes Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare of the Common Man” – “because it was the common man who went through all of this,” Preu said; Maine composer Daniel Sonenberg’s “First Light: A Fanfare for Maine,” celebrating Maine’s status as the first state to see the rising sun; a piece by Ferde Grofe, “Grand Canyon Suite,” about natural majesty; and a piano concert by African American composer Florence Price, with guest pianist Michelle Cann.

“We’re really making an effort to be more inclusive and diversify our programming,” he said. “That is not only the flavor of the day, but a commitment going forward to rediscover not only female composers, but African American composers and other minority composers.”

The Sonenberg piece was scheduled to be performed in March 2020 as part of the state’s bicentennial celebration but was postponed by the pandemic.

The second classical concert of the season, at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 21, features two pieces of music – Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major – that explore love, loss and the range of human emotions. “What kind of music do we need right now? We need beautiful music, emotional music. The Dvorak piece is just gorgeous, and the Elgar, there is so much emotion in the concerto,” Preu said. The concert will feature guest cellist Maja Bogdanovic.

The orchestra’s fall calendar also includes the Pops concert “Celtic Spirit” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23 and 2:30 p.m. Oct 24 with violist Eileen Ivers and guest conductor Jayce Ogren, and the “Piano Men” tribute to Elton John and Billy Joel featuring longtime Maine musician Joe Boucher, who is also the PSO’s stage manager, at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 7. Preu will conduct Boucher, who plays piano for this high-energy rock ‘n’ roll show. “We always joke about how little I know about this music,” Preu said. “Whenever I do a Pops concert, it’s a little bit out of my comfort zone, but I am always excited about it. I enjoy learning.”

As for sharing the stage with Boucher, who grew up in Biddeford and spent years in rock bands, Preu is eager to catch the thrill. The PSO presented the concert in 2014, and it remains the orchestra’s best-selling Pops concert. “He is such an icon, and so much fun,” Preu said.

The fall season transitions into winter with “Magic of Christmas” featuring James Kennerley on the Kotzschmar Organ and the Magic of Christmas chorus, from Dec. 10-19. In all, the PSO is scheduled to perform 39 concerts during its 2021-22 season, which runs through June 21.

The orchestra will offer digital versions of most concerts, said Carolyn Nishon, the PSO’s executive director. The orchestra is selling season subscriptions at three levels to reflect the changing dynamic of live performance amid the pandemic. The highest level, the Full Passport, includes a reserved seat at Merrill and full digital access; a Basic Passport, which reserves a seat for the 2022-23 season with digital access for this season; and a Digital Passport, a digital-only option.

The digital concerts have opened up audiences, she said. Last year, people from 36 states paid to watch the orchestra perform. That said, attendance at Merrill is sure to be off this year, as people adjust to the idea of returning indoors to concerts. That is why the orchestra has continued its Resiliency Fund. With a goal of $500,000, the Resiliency Fund replaces income lost to ticket sales.

“The pandemic is having an impact on ticket sales, and that is not a surprise,” she said. “But there are flexible options. As we are saying, we are bringing the music to you, when and where you want to watch.”

Nishon noted that the orchestra will open its season Oct. 19 with a full array of musicians on stage. During the digital concerts last season, the orchestra performed in small ensembles.

The music Preu programmed for the season opener is best-served with a large, robust orchestra.

“It was important to get everybody back together and back on stage at Merrill, and we will do it safely,” she said. “I am excited to hear live music again at Merrill, with an audience. I am so proud of the way this team has worked together collaboratively to get to this point. The musicians and union have been great, Eckart has been an amazing partner to work with. The trustees have been thoughtful, responsive and willing to meet and support our community. The through-line has been, we will bring our community music no matter what.”

For concert details and ticket information, visit portlandsymphony.org. At this time, masks are required at Merrill Auditorium, and the PSO will follow all guidelines made by city, state and federal public health officials.


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