If you know the violinist Lewis Kaplan, you probably also expected that when he gave up the directorship of the Bowdoin International Music Festival after leading it for half a century, he would be back with something else soon. And indeed, the enterprising octogenarian began pulling together ideas for his next project as soon as he announced his retirement. That project, the Portland Bach Festival, opened its inaugural season Sunday evening at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth with a robust program that touched on Bach’s organ music, solo instrumental works, concertos and cantatas.
Kaplan’s plan has a lot going for it. As a summer resident of Maine since 1964, when he co-founded the Bowdoin festival, a winter resident of New York, where he teaches at the Juilliard School and Mannes College the New School for Music, and a visiting professor at the Royal College of Music in London, Kaplan has both a love for the area and solid contacts in the international musical world. With Emily Isaacson, the director of the Oratorio Chorale, as his associate artistic director, he has further links to Portland’s musical life. Between them, they’ve put together a board to raise the money to support such a venture.
Bach, moreover, is not a tough sell, and the six-day festival, which runs through Friday and includes concerts (each preceded by a lecture), master classes, children’s programming, a violin exhibition and a “Bach with Beer” performance, is sold out. Granted, the festival’s main venues – St. Mary’s and the round chapel at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland – are fairly intimate. But that is as it should be for much of this music.
For his roster, Kaplan drew on both Portland and New York musicians, with the latter making up what appeared to be a hand-picked orchestra of mostly young musicians with a strong sense of Baroque style, several of whom will be heard as soloists during the festival. Portland’s main contributions are its choirs – Isaacson’s group as well as St. Mary’s Schola – and Ray Cornils, the city’s municipal organist, who recently announced that he would leave his position in 2017.
Cornils opened the festival with the Prelude and Fugue in G (BWV 541). In truth, the acoustics at St. Mary’s were dry for organ music – not what you would expect in a church with a brick and wood interior. That dryness made Cornils’ phrasing in the Prelude seem oddly clipped, although one could argue that the reading’s rough-hewn quality supported the improvisatory spirit that lies at the heart of Bach’s preludes. In the necessarily more orderly Fugue, Cornils compensated with more flowing lines, but the absence of reverberation (the final chord, for example, had none at all) was still telling.
Beiliang Zhu, a young cellist who won first prize at the International Bach Competition in Leipzig in 2012, gave an exemplary performance of the Cello Suite No. 6 in D major (BWV 1012). For the occasion, she used a five-string Amato instrument, made in 1600 (85 years before Bach’s birth), which had once been owned by the British early music cellist Amaryllis Fleming. Zhu’s tone was warm, if not especially large (again, a more vibrant acoustic would have made her sound blossom more fully), and she played with the transparency and fleetness necessary to create the illusion of counterpoint within Bach’s nimble dance forms.
The rest of the concert was devoted to music for larger ensembles, for which St. Mary’s acoustics are more amenable. That said, Kaplan’s orchestra for the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor (BWV 1060R) – a reconstruction of a lost work, based on the surviving double harpsichord concerto – used the minimalist forces that musicologists now say were available to Bach. That meant two violins and a single viola, cello and double bass. Kaplan was the violin soloist and conductor, and John Ferrillo, the principal oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, contributed a rich-toned, beautifully nuanced account of the oboe line that wove deftly through the work in a lively interplay with both Kaplan and the orchestra.
The concert ended with the popular Cantata No. 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” with the Oratorio Chorale supported by a slightly larger orchestra, the organist Bruce Fithian and, in the final chorale, the audience, which was asked to join in the singing, as the congregation in Bach’s day would have done. Kaplan conducted a firm, focused performance, with elegantly phrased contributions from the vocal soloists – Jason McStoots, tenor; Sarah Brailey, soprano; and Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone – and lovely accounts of the work’s oboe and violin obbligatos from Ferrillo and the violinist Renée Jolles.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: