The coming season is part of a sea-change that promises to elevate Portland’s classical music scene in the immediate future.

The past year has seen the appointment of both a new municipal organist, James Kennerley, and the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s next music director, Eckart Preu – both superb musicians, judging by their appearances here so far. Meanwhile, the Portland Conservatory has just made an agreement with Steinway & Sons that puts new pianos in its studios and concert hall, a move that should yield at least a subtle upgrade to its concerts. And fundraising has begun for a new arts center on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, which could include a 1,000-seat concert hall.

The season itself is packed with promising offerings, starting with the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s opener at Merrill Auditorium on Sept. 30, when Jeffrey Kahane makes the first of several appearances with the orchestra. Kahane began his career as a driven, thoughtful pianist – a role he will resume later in the season, when he conducts Mozart and Beethoven concertos from the keyboard – but he has blossomed into an eloquent conductor, as well.

Pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane makes several appearances with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra is advertising Kahane’s opening concert as “Mozart & Tchaikovsky,” the former represented by the “Prague” Symphony, and the latter by “Francesca da Rimini” and a movement from the Serenade for Strings. But for me, the real draw is the one composer not mentioned, Lowell Liebermann, whose melodically rich, involving Flute Concerto will be performed, with Lisa Hennessey as the soloist.

Preu will be back for a single program in his new capacity as music director designate, on Jan. 27 and 29. The program is nothing if not colorful: Along with the premiere of a commissioned work by Michael-Thomas Foumai, a Hawaiian composer who won the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award in 2017, and Tchaikovsky’s lush “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture,” it includes Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” one of the most dazzlingly descriptive scores in the Russian Romantic repertoire.

The Portland String Quartet is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, with a three-concert series at Woodfords Congregational Church (Sept. 30, Dec. 2 and May 12), in which it will look at some of the masterworks of the quartet literature – particularly the works of Brahms, which appear on each program. If I had to pick one, it would be the middle concert, which includes Bartók’s Quartet No. 1 (Op. 7), Mozart’s Quartet in A major (K. 464) and Brahms’s Quartet in A minor (Op. 51, No. 2). But there’s a fourth possibility as well. As an anniversary gift to the city, the quartet is giving a free performance of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” at Mechanics Hall on Dec. 21.

Other must-hear chamber music concerts include the opening of the DaPonte String Quartet’s season at the Jewish Museum, on Nov. 8, which includes a reprise of Richard Danielpour’s evocative String Quartet No. 8, “What the Light Was Like,” a new work the ensemble premiered this summer. And Portland Ovations is bringing the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, a first-rate new-music string ensemble, for a program of works by Charlemagne Palestine, Philip Glass, Clarice Jensen and Morton Feldman, on Feb. 21 at the Maine College of Art.

Early music remains a boutique concern in Portland, but the new season includes programs that should draw larger audiences to this repertoire, which can be earthy and sublime in equal measure. Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (1610), a peak of the sacred music canon, was probably the work that won Monteverdi the position of maestro di cappella at the Basilica San Marco, in Venice. A glorious 90-minute score, it includes settings of psalms and other Biblical texts, a hefty Magnificat and pieces for various Roman Catholic feast days, all topped off by an opening motet set to the same regal music as the Toccata from the composer’s “Orfeo” (1607). The Oratorio Chorale performs it on Nov. 10 at Woodfords Congregational Church, in Portland, and Nov. 11 at St. John the Baptist Church, in Brunswick.

The Orlando Consort, a British early music vocal ensemble, is presenting “Voices Appeared,” a program of early-15th-century music – works by Dufay, Binchois, le Grant and others – with a twist: The performance, which is presented by Portland Ovations at Hannaford Hall on Jan. 24, will be a multimedia production, built around “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc,” Carl Theodor Dreyer’s haunting 1928 silent film portrayal of Joan of Arc.

Last season, John Dowland’s “Second Booke of Songs or Ayres” (1600) was the centerpiece of Portland Early Music’s series in the small, round chapel at St. Luke’s Cathedral. The “Second Booke” is a great collection of bittersweet English lute songs, by the master of the form – but for me, “The First Booke of Songs or Ayres” (1597) is even better. On Feb. 9, tenor Timothy Neill Johnson, lutenist Timothy Burris and gambist Todd Borgerding will perform the “First Booke” complete. It has all the hits, so to speak – “Unquiet Thoughts,” “If My Complaints,” “Can She Excuse,” “Come Again,” “Come Heavy Sleep” – 21 exquisitely melancholy songs (plus a single solo lute work) that capture the spirit of the era. It was Dowland’s “Sgt. Pepper,” and shouldn’t be missed.

Of course, just about everyone loves Bach, particularly here in Portland, the home of not one but two competing Bach festivals, and municipal organist Kennerley will tap into that passion with a celebration of Bach’s 334th birthday (a day early) on the Kotzschmar organ, at Merrill Auditorium on March 20.

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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