The festival, founded by Lewis Kaplan in 2016, is bringing acclaimed classical musicians to Portland for six concerts.
Lewis Kaplan stepped down from the Bowdoin International Music Festival in 2014 after serving for 50 years as artistic director of the event he founded. He was 80 at the time and could easily have let that be his legacy.
“I was still teaching full time, but I was restless, you know,” Kaplan said this month. “And I realized the thing that absorbed me the most in my life was Bach.”
Less than two years later, Kaplan launched a new music festival, one devoted almost entirely to the influential early 18th century German composer.
The Bach Virtuosi Festival – formerly known as the Portland Bach Festival – is now in its seventh year. This year’s festival will be held from Sunday through Aug. 6. Three performances will be inside at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland and one will be at Etz Chaim Synagogue. Additionally, for the first time, the festival will feature a free concert – performed by graduate students at the Juilliard School, where Kaplan is a faculty member – at the Portland Museum of Art.
Kaplan has brought back the same core of world-class musicians that include: himself on violin, along with Ariadne Daskalakis and Renee Jolles; cellist Beiliang Zhu; violist Sebastian Gottschick; flutist Emi Ferguson; soprano Sherezade Panthaki; countertenor Jay Carter; and Arthur Haas on harpsichord.
In the first year, Kaplan said he would have been happy if 20 people showed up. Now, the goal is to fill hundreds of cathedral seats.
“When Bach was alive and wrote all this music, everyone believed. He was writing for an audience that truly believed and that’s not true anymore,” he said. “But Bach reaches you.”
Kaplan said growing audiences is important – that was the impetus behind the free concert – but the festival avoids gimmicks and hews closely to the music.
When the festival began in 2016 as the Portland Bach Festival, Kaplan was joined by Emily Isaacson, who served as associate artistic director. But it became clear to both that they had different visions for how the festival should be run. Isaacson, who is two generations younger than Kaplan, was interested in taking down some of the formal barriers associated with classical music to engage with a younger audience. Kaplan wanted to keep things more traditional and serious-minded.
After two years, their partnership dissolved, but out of that came two Bach-themed festivals. The Portland Bach Experience, led by Isaacson, which took place last month, and the Bach Virtuosi Festival.
This year’s opening concert Sunday will feature one of Bach’s most recognizable pieces – Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, featuring trumpeter John Thiessen – as well as the cantata, “Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet!” that includes choral accompaniment.
Tuesday’s performance will include selections from other classical composers but also two world premiere pieces from contemporary musicians, Gottschick and Celeste Oram.
Thursday’s “All Bach Concert” at the synagogue will feature a pair of sonatas and pieces from St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion, two famed oratorios Bach composed to be performed during church services. That show will be followed by a discussion, “Anti-Semitism, Past & Present,” featuring Bach historian Christoph Wolff of Harvard University, longtime music critic Allan Kozinn and Rabbi Gary Berenson.
Wolff also will host a free lecture at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the cathedral.
Friday’s free concert, a collaboration with the Portland Museum of Art, will include developing musicians at the Julliard School pairing works of art from artists like Monet and Homer with pieces of classical music.
Saturday’s closing concert will include selections from Bach, but also two other Baroque masters, Vivaldi and Handel, and will feature accompaniment by renowned organist Katelyn Emerson, who is from York.
Kaplan said he’s as excited for this year’s festival as he’s ever been and has no plans to turn over his duties, even as he edges closes to 90 years old.
“Most people have to retire,” he said. “The fact that I can still do this, still bring international quality music to Portland every summer, I’m fortunate.”
By Eric Russell Staff Writer for the Portland Press Herald