In Portland music circles, this is a week of significant milestones.
James Kennerley performs his first concert as Portland’s municipal organist, Jennifer Elowitch begins winding down her tenure as artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival with a pair of concerts, and Bruce Fithian celebrates the first decade of the St. Mary Schola with a concert of early music that includes wines selected to match the music.
Let’s start with Kennerley. He makes his debut as municipal organist with a Kotzschmar Organ concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 18. He’s the city’s 11th municipal organist, and the successor to Ray Cornils. He grew up in England and lives in New York City.
Kennerley’s job is to perform concerts that demonstrate the organ’s capacity and wonder, while engaging Kotzschmar loyalists and bringing new admirers to the organ. We get the first glimpse of his musical strategy on Wednesday night.
In a program titled “Overtures,” he plans to perform orchestral overtures by Wagner, Rossini and Bernstein, a piece by César Franck and another by former municipal organist Edwin Lemare. He’s going to play a contemporary piece by British composer Jonathan Dove and a few others that he won’t reveal.
Kennerley, 33, has had fun getting to know the organ, which he has played in rehearsal for about 20 hours leading up to his Portland debut. “The organ is incredible,” he said. “I’ve heard it in recordings for years, and I’ve heard it in person, but I hadn’t played it until my audition,” he said. “It’s like getting to know someone you’ve never really met, but they’re going to become your best friend, and you’re going to know everything about them pretty soon. My time in rehearsal so far has really been spent playing around with the sounds, finding all the qualities and quirks and acoustics of the room and really just building a relationship with my fingers and ears and getting to know the instrument. … The challenge of being an organist, especially (with) a massive and complicated organ like the Kotzschmar, is to work out its charm. You do that by experimenting, listening and trying new things you would never normally would do.”
PORTLAND CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL
Exactly one year ago, Jennifer Elowitch announced she would step down as artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival after this season, her 25th, which begins with two concerts of chamber music this weekend. Elowitch programmed the concerts as a farewell love letter to Portland, which will continue with festival concerts in August.
“I feel that I am running out of time with this particular group, and I do want to say as much as I can say this year,” said Elowitch, who grew up in Portland and lives in suburban Boston, where she is director of music at Walnut Hill School for the Arts. “I don’t get that many opportunities like this, and I don’t take them for granted. I am doing things I have wanted to do but haven’t done yet. It’s very exciting.”
First up is “And This Is My Beloved,” a Salon Series program of romantic Russian music on Saturday, followed by “Four By Four,” with music by 20th- and 21st-century composers at Space Gallery on Sunday. The Salon Series concert is at a private home in Portland’s West End, but tickets are available to the public.
Both programs will be performed by Elowitch and Sunghae Anna Lim on violin; Noriko Futagami on viola; and Rhonda Rider on cello.
“And This Is My Beloved” is all about “hot-blooded Russian romanticism,” Elowitch said, with music by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Borodin. The composers wrote these pieces for their loves, as memorials and gifts, and are linked by their passion and drama.
For Sunday’s “Four By Four” concert at Space, Elowitch places 20th-century masterworks by Shostakovich and Schulhoff with the widely loved “G Song” by Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet, and “Thanks Victor,” an homage to Tin Pan Alley composer Victor Young by John Harbison.
Both concerts represent the kind of programming that Elowitch has mastered, with interesting programs performed in adaptive settings. The Salon Series is very much a living-room concert, cozy and intimate with casual interactions among the musicians and members of the audience. The Space concerts have a different vibe, attracting a younger crowd that appreciates chamber music in an informal, nightclub setting.
“We’re hoping to cast a wide net,” Elowitch said. “With the summer festival, the Salon Series and the concerts at Space Gallery, it’s like a three-legged stool.”
ST. MARY SCHOLA
The St. Mary Schola will mark a decade of chamber music performance with a 10th Anniversary Gala at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Church of Saint Mary in Falmouth. The concert will include works the ensemble has performed over the past 10 years, coupled with wine. Sommelier Erica Archer will present four wine tastings throughout the concert.
French Renaissance lute songs will be followed by a French wine, and Monteverdi’s madrigals will be paired with an Italian vintage, with sparkling wine to finish. Proceeds will help pay for an upcoming CD project. People who buy a ticket to the concert will receive a CD when it’s finished, said Bruce Fithian, who founded the ensemble after he became organist and choirmaster at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary.
“As soon as I came inside the church, I knew this is just the perfect spot for early music, because of beautiful acoustics and surroundings,” said Fithian, who has sung and performed in early-music groups in Boston and Europe, and taught for many years at the University of Southern Maine.
The St. Mary Schola began as a nucleus of singers, many of whom are still with the group. It performed its first concert in spring 2008, and the mission of the group has always been very specific, Fithian said. “From the beginning, I wanted to have an outlet for professional singers to do this wonderful music and promote a high level of music making,” he said.
The ensemble has added instrumentalists, and now numbers about 18 or so.
Quietly, St. Mary Schola has become one of Portland’s deeply loved ensembles. Fithian thinks that’s because of the group’s understated elegance. “There is so much sensory overload and so much sound these days,” he said. “I believe there is a hunger to really listen. This is soft music, and there is a hunger for this type of music, which is very different from the usual concert repertoire that you hear.”
WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: A private home
HOW MUCH: $75
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $15
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Episcopal Church of St. Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth
HOW MUCH: $50