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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: June 5, 2018

How a Maine conductor is bringing Bach ‘back to its natural habitat’

Written by: Bob Keyes

Emily Issacson Photo by Heidi Kirn

Round two of the Portland Bach Experience begins Friday, when artistic director Emily Isaacson engages a trio of trumpets and full orchestra for Bach’s grand Orchestral Suite No. 3 and “Magnificat,” perhaps the Baroque composer’s most popular vocal works.

It’s an all-spring Bach, with two major Bach festivals in Portland, and one of them – the Portland Bach Experience, as visioned by Isaacson – has two components. The first occurred in May, and the second round begins this week, with concerts, formal and informal, across the city. Isaacson sees the festival as a celebration of the music of the Baroque era in traditional and progressive formats, to help listeners “bridge the musical traditions of the past with the experience of the 21st century.”

Isaacson, 36, is a Brunswick-born musician and conductor now living in Portland, after having lived elsewhere for many years. She came back to Maine to raise her family, among other reasons. She studied English and art history at Williams College and music history at Edinburgh Univerity in Scotland on a St. Andrew’s Society fellowship. She earned her master’s in conducting at the University of Oregon and her doctorate in conducting at the University of Illinois. She is among four finalists for the American Prize in conducting.

She recently talked about her Bach, the festival and living and working in Maine.

I’m interested in your philosophy about what good music is and can be. Do labels matter anymore?

Labels have their role. In the same way that it’s nice to know if you’re ordering a meat or veggie burger before you take a bite, it’s helpful to manage expectations by knowing the general size and type of ensemble – orchestra versus ska band, and length of experience – symphony versus aria. But beyond that, labels have always been more of an academic construct than an artistic invention.

For centuries, composers have crossed the classical-popular divide in search of good music without needing to label it as this or that, but somewhere along the way we became interested in segregating musical styles and confining them to concert versus dance halls.

My generation of musicians is not interested in “classical” or “pop” music. They’re interested in intriguing musical ideas in whatever form they take. So you have people like Nico Muhly who are simultaneously commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and collaborating with Björk, The National, Grizzly Bear and other pop artists. My generation is interested in mining the expressive potential of all musical forms in service of richer, more meaningful works of art.

Describe the factors that contribute to your musical sensibilities. What music were you exposed to growing up, and what were those experiences like? How did they factor in your decisions to pursue music?

I grew up singing James Taylor, performing Rodgers and Hammerstein, and attending chamber music festivals. I was drawn to the expressiveness of the former – I still cry singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – and was put off by what felt like the elitism of classical music. But when I was 13, I was the boy soloist for “Chichester Psalms” with the Bowdoin International Music Festival. I had never before encountered music as so complex, contemporary, political and emotional. Soon after I discovered Benjamin Britten. These composers showed me how classical music could be a part of a larger conversation in our society.

Relative to Maine, why did you come back here and what did you risk in doing so? Said another way, what did you gain? And more important than that, why was it important for you to come home to Maine?

I risked a lot moving here. In my field you hop from job to job, moving cities every few years chasing the next opportunity or spending your life on an airplane. When we moved from Boston to Portland, I didn’t tell anyone. I was afraid they would write me off. Woman, mom, Maine – that’s not your traditional conductor resume.

But, Maine is a place where, rather than climbing the ladder, you can build your own future. In Maine, you don’t need a million dollars or a fancy appointment to have a leadership role. Here we value hard work, strong morals, and exciting ideas, so if you want to be a part of the conversation to make things happen, you can.

As for Bach and the Portland Bach Experience, what is your pitch to families, millennials and other people your age?

I believe that, especially right now, we all want some beauty in our life. We need it to stay sane and hopeful – and nothing is more transportive and transformative than Bach. But in the last 200 years, we have erected a lot of barriers to having great art in our life. Cost, yes, but also time. In the 21st century, we are juggling two jobs, daycare, soccer practice, grocery shopping. We don’t have the money to buy an expensive ticket and a babysitter, but we also don’t have the time, and we don’t want to be away from our kids and our friends. So, part of my goal is to bring this world-class music into experiences that are meaningful and accessible to different people at different stages in life. So you can listen to this music while doing yoga, while drinking a beer, and while your kids dance along. I’m trying to bring this music back into people’s lives, rather than ask them to pause their lives to go hear music. Sometimes a concert hall is the right way to hear a piece – I wouldn’t want to hear the B Minor Mass any other way – but that’s not where Bach intended us to hear most of his music, and that’s not how I most enjoy hearing it. I’m bringing the music back to its natural habitat.

The Portland Bach Experience

WHEN: Friday through June 17
WHERE: Around Portland
TICKETS & INFO: Some events are free; concert prices range from $5 to $70; $260 for festival pass;

1. Opening night concert featuring Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 and “Magnificat,” 7 p.m. Friday (and 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday) at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth

2.Suite Ride Through Portland, all six Bach cello suites are performed in one day in different locations throughout Portland, including with silently led yoga on the Eastern Prom, at the Farmers Market and at the docks of the Casco Bay ferry terminal; free; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 16.

3. The Court Musicians Salon at Little Giant, 211 Danforth St., Portland. Little Giant is a new restaurant, and Isaacson is trying to create an experience of the European courts, with music served between courses of food; 5:30 p.m. June 12.

4.  Bach & Beer, a free family-friendly casual concert with food, dancing and beer for sale; 5 to 7 p.m. June 14 at the Customs House in Portland.

5. Art of Fugue Salon, a house concert for music nerds featuring “Die Kunst der Fuge,” which combines mathematical genius and artistic beauty performed by the Diderot String Quartet in a house-concert setting in a private waterfront home; 7 p.m. June 14.

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