The battle of the Bach festivals in Portland entered its second round Sunday evening, when Lewis Kaplan raised the curtain on his Bach Virtuosi Festival, just hours after Emily Isaacson’s Portland Bach Experience concluded its run. Kaplan had started the predecessor of both festivals – the Portland Bach Festival – in 2016 and enlisted Isaacson as associate artistic director, but after two seasons, Kaplan and Isaacson went their separate ways, each determined to keep the Bach festival going, but both legally constrained from retaining its original name.

Both festivals use a few local musicians, and many more brought to Portland from New York, Boston and elsewhere, where early music thrives sufficiently to support large contingents of specialist performers. But in terms of continuity, the Bach Virtuosi Festival has the edge: Many of the musicians who played at the Portland Bach Festival during its two-year run have returned, and certain programming ideas have been retained – most notably a “Before Bach and Beyond” concert, scheduled for Tuesday evening at St. Luke’s Cathedral, which brings together composers who influenced Bach and composers directly influenced by him.

Interestingly, the festivals took a similar approach to their opening concerts, each offering Bach’s secular music in its first half and church music after the intermission. There is, of course, plenty of music in each category – Bach composed more than 1,100 works – and there was no direct overlap.

Cellist Beilang Zhu opened the program with the Suite for Unaccompanied Cello No. 3 (BWV 1009), an installment in a traversal of the suites that she began at the 2016 festival. In past years, she has used a five-string Amati cello that was older than Bach himself. This time she used a modern instrument, both in her solo appearance and as a member of the ensemble (in which period and modern instruments mingled).

Since she plays both kinds of cello, it would have been interesting to hear her thoughts on why she chooses one over the other. But the performance itself rendered that a moot point. As in the past, she produced a bright but warm tone and clean, transparent lines that fostered the essential magic trick that drives these pieces – the illusion of independent counterpoint, emerging from a single line of music. The suite’s dance movements were sharply articulated, and the fast ones – especially the two Bourées and the closing Gigue – were sizzling.

Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D major (BWV 1064R) is a curiosity. Scholars know that Bach composed such a work, but although the score has not survived, a later reworking, for three harpsichords, has. Over the years, several musicians have used the keyboard version as a template for reconstructing the triple violin concerto; on Sunday, the ensemble used a version by Sebastian Gottschick.

It works beautifully – in fact, the three-violin version has a sleekness that makes the harpsichord reconfiguration seem a bit unwieldy, although it definitely has its charms. The soloists, Ariadne Daskalakis, Renée Jolles and Yibin Li, were well-matched but sufficiently distinctive so that, in passages that involved all three, their individual voices were clear: Jolles plays with a dark, rounded tone, Daskalakis’ sound is brighter but equally rich, and Li’s is slightly thinner, but sharply focused.

With the support of a rock-solid ensemble, they gave driven performances of the brisk outer movements, and an account of the central Adagio steeped in a lushness that seemed more in the spirit of 1960s Bach interpretation than the ultra-rational approach of more recent times.

The program’s sacred works were a motet, “Komm, Jesu, Komm” (BWV 229), which was performed without a conductor (although soprano Sherezade Panthaki gave some essential cues), and a cantata, “Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” (BWV 70), which Kaplan conducted.

For both, the festival fielded a choir of only eight voices, which matches scholars’ information about the forces available to Bach at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Having a minimal choir means, of course, that the singers must all be thoroughly focused, not to mention well-blended. The vocal octet here was superb, and sounded full and lovely in the resonant acoustic at St. Luke’s.

The cantata benefited from excellent, astutely phrased solo singing by Panthaki, countertenor Jay Carter, tenor Brian Giebler and baritone Dashon Burton, as well as superb trumpet work by John Thiessen, graceful oboe playing by Priscilla Herreid, and firm support from the magnificently polished chamber orchestra.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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