Divisions in classical music and the debate about how to treat the most sacred part of the canon will play out in Portland this spring, as the city hosts two Bach-focused festivals that will offer audiences two very different musical experiences.
One is more formal and traditional, the other more casual and contemporary, and both grew out of the short-lived Portland Bach Festival, which was staged in 2016 and 2017 and then dissolved over the course of this past winter when creative differences between the artistic directors divided their vision and forced their split. As a result, Portland now has two music festivals that draw inspiration from Johann Sebastian Bach, considered by many to be the greatest composer of all time.
First up is the first round of the Portland Bach Experience, a modern festival rooted in old-world traditions. It begins this week with musical experiences in private homes, nightclubs, a bowling alley and the Portland Museum of Art. The festival has another round of events in June that will include outdoor concerts, pop-up concerts and Bach & Beer, as well as traditional concerts in formal settings.
Emily Isaacson is the festival’s founder and artistic director. She is artistic director of the Oratorio Chorale and Maine Chamber Ensemble, and a graduate of Williams College.
In between will be the Bach Virtuosi Festival, which will feature three concerts in church and synagogue settings. It is directed by Lewis Kaplan, longtime past director of the Bowdoin International Music Festival and a professor at the Juilliard School in New York.
Kaplan’s festival follows a traditional, European model of music appreciation, while Isaacson is interested in a less formal, more social approach to music-making. Toward that end, she’s planned a reprise of Bach in a Bowling Alley at Bayside Bowl (11 a.m. Sunday), a series of mini concerts. The program debuted at the Portland Bach Festival last year, and Isaacson is carrying it over into the Portland Bach Experience. There will be pop-up concerts at the Portland Museum of Art as part of First Friday Art Walk, and in June, she’s planned Bach & Beer, pairing local beers with musical interludes, and a rolling concert that will begin on the Eastern prom and travel throughout the city.
Isaacson said less formal and more social does not mean less attention to musical integrity or performance detail.
“Let me be clear, I care deeply about this art form. It has transformed my life and so many others,” she said. “But we live in a world where the top music award, the Pulitzer Prize, was given by unanimous decision to a rapper, Kendrick Lamar. To treat this music the same way it has been presented for the last 50 years is a recipe for extinction. I am interested in giving this music life in the digital age.”
She reflects on her work through the lens of irony. What she is trying to do is a bit of departure from societal norms and how we are accustomed to experiencing music today. But Isaacson, 35, said she is merely returning music to the environment in which it was conceived.
“The concert hall, with its strict rules and etiquette, is a 19th-century invention,” she said. “Much of Bach’s secular music was premiered at Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus, a beer hall for the middle class. At the time, women were forbidden from frequenting these coffee shops, but they were allowed to attend these concerts, so Zimmerman’s became a place for the opposite sexes to meet. In other words, Bach intended this music to be heard in a venue that was associated with drinking, socializing and flirting.”
With events like Bach in a Bowling Alley, Bach & Beer, she’s trying to return classical music to its natural habitat. “I am also interested in bringing to Portland the cutting edge of music in America. My generation thinks that the classifications ‘jazz,’ ‘classical, ‘pop,’ are unnecessary. Music is a giant, interconnected ecosystem, and we are interested in mining all of its expressive qualities.”
Meanwhile, Kaplan is adhering to a tradition that has served musicians and composers well for centuries: beautiful music in beautiful settings. He’s bringing two dozen musicians with excellent credentials to Portland for a series of concerts in churches and synagogues known for their good acoustics and sacrosanct traditions.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” Kaplan said. “Ticket sales are going well, the musicians are excited about coming to Portland, and we have some wonderful concerts planned. I think it’s going to be a very classy.”
Friday, May 4
4:30 p.m., Warp Trio, One Longfellow Square; free
First Friday Pop-up concerts
Beginning at 5 p.m., Portland Museum of Art; free
7:30 p.m., location private until ticket purchase
Warp Trio & Nate Tucker, DJ
7 p.m., One Longfellow Square
Saturday, May 5
“Bach & Forth”
7:30 p.m., location private until ticket purchase
An evening of Bach, Beethoven, and Bill Evans
Sunday, May 6th
Bach in a Bowling Alley
11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Bayside Bowl
TICKETS: Many events are free; Arneis Quartet, $70; “Bach & Forth,” $15 and $40
PORTLAND BACH EXPERIENCE, Part II
BACH VIRTUOSI FESTIVAL