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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: February 10, 2016

Portland Symphony Orchestra celebrates love with a local twist

Written by: Bob Keyes
Cover design by Pete Gorski

It worked for Arthur Fiedler. It should work for Norman Huynh.

When programming a pops concert, Fiedler, the longtime conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, allowed the magical sweep of orchestral music to do its trick and spiced up the proceedings with the appearance of a star or two.

Huynh, assistant conductor of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, is following the Fiedler formula in “Portland in Love,” a pair of Valentine’s pops concerts this weekend at Merrill Auditorium. Under Huynh’s direction, the orchestra will employ its sweep with romantic music by Bizet and Tchaikovsky, and spice it up with appearances by local music stars Lyle Divinsky and Sara Hallie Richardson. Afterward, the symphony will host a Symphony & Spirits cocktail party at Portland House of Music.

“Portland in Love” will feature the music of Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton and Ben E. King, along with songs by Divinsky and Richardson, who will perform with the orchestra. In addition to their own songs, they will sing “For Once in My Life,” “I Will Always Love You” and “Stand By Me.”

"Portland in Love"

Portland Symphony Orchestra conductor Norman Huynh with a bust of Beethoven at his home in Portland Photo by Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

“I’m a huge fan of both of their voices and their talents,” Huynh said of his guests, who are regulars of the Portland music scene. “They are huge rock stars, and deserve to be shown off to all the people of Portland and Maine.”

They also are a compelling study in contrasts. Divinsky has one of the biggest voices in all of New England. He’s a soul master with a streak of funk, a bright smile and a personality that engulfs a room. Richardson sings with alluring delicacy, and is capable of turning up the volume and sass.

"Portland in Love"

Lyle Divinsky Courtesy photo

Richardson released “Phoenix” last year. She has an exquisite voice and plays both acoustic and electric guitar. Her songs are complex and nuanced with dense vocal harmonies and soaring melodies. In a phone interview from California, where he was performing last week, Divinsky said he felt a little out of his league singing with Richardson.

“I’m almost scared of her, because she’s so good,” Divinsky said. “I don’t think I have ever heard her hit a wrong note. If there is a heaven and the angels exist, she is what they sound like. She’s perfect. It’s such an honor and such an exciting thing to have her on the show.”

Richardson has worked with the orchestra once before. She was part of its Portland Lullaby Project last spring, where she teamed with a young mother to write a lullaby, then helped record it with a small group of orchestra musicians.

Sara Hallie Richardson Courtesy photo

Sara Hallie Richardson  Courtesy photo

She’s thrilled to be singing with the full orchestra – and intimidated that one of her songs, “Reprise,” will get the sweeping orchestral treatment. She turned her song over to the symphony’s arranger, Scott Lee, who wrote the full orchestral arrangement for this performance. Her songs are written for a soloist or small band, so performing them with 60 or so musicians is a rare opportunity, she said.

“Reprise” fits the theme of the night. “It’s more along the lines of better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” Richardson said. “I got my heart broken horribly this past year, and I wrote this song as a love song. It ended up healing me through the heart-breaking process.”

Divinsky, on the other hand, writes big. Divinsky’s latest CD, “Uneven Floors,” includes horns and strings, and because he plays with large bands regularly, he already charted some of his songs. Lee expanded those charts for the full orchestra.

It’s very rewarding, Divinsky said, to live in a city that values music so highly that the local orchestra works with local musicians to present a program for Valentine’s Day that includes songs by local songwriters. “It’s an incredible opportunity,” Divinsky said. “To be able to collaborate with a full orchestra, it shows how special a place Maine really is.”

Here’s Lyle Divinsky singing his tune “Rich”

Richardson has long held orchestral music in high regard. She was raised on classical music, and performed in school growing up. “There is this real hugeness around classical music, this magical, expansive feeling I have about the symphony,” she said. “Anytime a community or group comes together to perform music, it symbolizes a kind of unity this world needs more of. I find it incredibly special, or sacred, to have that many people come together to create something so beautiful. It’s so rare.”

Just like true love.

Listen to Sara Hallie Richardson sing her original song “Green Gables”


WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $23 to $75

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