Society Notebook: Portland Ovations celebrates 90 years, livestreamed from Merrill

Tania Powers dropped off a party swag box for each event sponsor, got dressed in a 1930s-inspired theatergoing ensemble, had her temperature taken and was escorted to a seat at Merrill Auditorium, where she opened her laptop to see the live chat responding to what was happening 20 feet in front of her.

This is what it’s like to organize a fundraising event in March 2021.

“Lights are out now, but incredible art will come of this time,” said Powers, event chair for arts presenter Portland Ovations’ virtual 90th anniversary celebration, POP 90, held on March 25.

“The arts are integral to how we heal, how we grieve and how we hope,” Powers said. “It’s important to show what the arts mean in our community and showcase some of the wide variety of performing artists. It’s not about one performance but to show the scale and breadth of what Ovations is.”

More than 250 devices – presumably well over 250 individuals – logged into the presentation, which featured video excerpts from Maine artists whose work has been commissioned by Portland Ovations. They included Bridgman Packer Dance, whose multimedia work “Voyeur” was created with Ovations in part at recognizable Maine locations, and Kenneth Kellogg, a distinguished bass baritone who was featured in Dan Sonenberg’s “The Summer King.” Funds raised through POP 90 via sponsorships, an auction and donations will go toward next year’s productions, creating opportunities for more Maine artists.

“Portland Ovations has persevered through so much, being founded during the Great Depression and enduring through two World Wars and now this pandemic,” said Maria Chambers, a Founders Circle member in the live audience of five people.

“Ninety years,” added Joe Powers. “And this pandemic won’t stop Portland Ovations.”

The city of Portland established the Portland Music Commission in 1931 to bring performances to Merrill Auditorium. Nine decades and a name change later, Portland Ovations continues to bring artists to Merrill, as well as other local performance venues, schools, parks and the internet.

“When we had to cover our faces to protect one another, we got on the back of trucks, we went into parking lots and we made art with one another,” said poet and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, whose pop-up concerts in Portland parks on Oct. 11 brought people together but not too closely together.

“Our artists, arts organizations and venues have all been hard hit,” board President Mary Allen Lindemann said in the presentation. “But, I have to say, they have not let us down during this time. When so many of us felt darkness and weren’t sure there was hope, it was the artists and arts organizations who really raised our spirits up, creating new and exciting work.”

In June 2020, Portland Ovations used its Catalyst fund to commission new works from Maine artists – from playwright and survivor advocate Dee Clarke; blues and roots musician and award-winning guitarist Samuel James; innovative dancemaker Riley Watts; the Abbe Museum, with which Portland Ovations is creating Wabanaki stories for young people; and poet Kerem Durdag and his collaborator, musician Andy Happel.

“Creativity is the soul of life,” Durdag told attendees. “It is what gives us meaning and belonging.”

Durdag performed an excerpt from his new musical theater piece, “SoulRoar,” about the immigrant experience, while POP 90 co-host Sara Juli interpreted the emotion and rhythm of the words through dance.

“Portland Ovations has been incredibly supportive of me as an artist,” said Juli, adding that the Portland Ovations and Space Gallery co-commissioned her comedic performance piece “Burnt-Out Wife” that she was touring before the pandemic. “I’m more than honored to support them back.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer who was part of the “POP 90” live audience of five. She can be reached at

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