Bach Virtuosi Festival opens summer music season

Memorial Day marked the unofficial beginning of Maine’s summer, and the pace of our state’s seasonal performing arts is accelerating. Last week the first straw hat theater opened, while this weekend the first of the summer classical music festivals gets underway in Portland.

The Bach Virtuosi Festival, features top musicians from around the U.S. playing music written by and/or associated with 18th-century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The festival, now in its fourth season, is the creation of Juilliard School violin professor Lewis Kaplan.

A Maine native violinist is pressing forward in some new creative directions. Lissa Schneckenburger is best known as a traditional Franco-Celtic fiddler and ballad singer, but two weeks ago she released a new CD that marks a distinct departure from previous recordings. She’ll be hosting a release concert on Friday in Portland.

Bach Virtuosi Festival

Fifty-five years ago this summer, an up-and-coming violin professor at New York’s famed Juilliard School teamed up with the chairman of Bowdoin College’s music department to create a summertime concert series on the Brunswick campus. Lewis Kaplan and a few of his Juilliard cohorts supplied the music, while professor Robert Beckwith supplied the venue.

Thus was born the Bowdoin International Music Festival. Following its 1964 inaugural concerts, an expanded program, including advanced music students from around the U.S., taught by faculty artists recruited by Kaplan, marked the 1965 edition. Over the following decades, the festival grew into a six-week gathering of performing artists, faculty artists and conservatory-level students from around the world.

It remains the biggest such affair in Maine. This year’s festival features more than 200 concerts and other events. Most are open to the public, and many are free.

Following the 50th season, Kaplan retired as artistic director. Shortly after his retirement party, he coyly suggested to me that another project was in the offing.

Not much later, Kaplan announced the inaugural Portland Bach Festival, comprising a concert series in the Port City and environs to be performed by Kaplan and cohorts with an artistic focus on the music of 18th-century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, regarded by many as the greatest musical genius of all time.

I attended the first concert, and many of the subsequent ones, concluding that it marked a huge and welcome addition to Maine’s already thriving classical music scene.

Renamed the Bach Virtuosi Festival, the fourth edition of Kaplan’s newest project gets underway this Sunday. Four concerts are slated: June 2, 4, 6 and 9, plus a series of free master classes that are open to the public. Venues are St. Luke’s Cathedral and Etz Chaim Synagogue, both in Portland.

Kaplan’s lineup of talent numbers 33. Among the 25 instrumentalists, the best known is John Ferillo, first oboe of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Two are Maine natives: pianist Henry Kramer and organist Katelyn Emerson. A handful of Portland Symphony Orchestra members are also included.

A vocal ensemble of eight led, by soprano Sherezade Panthaki, includes four featured soloists.

Kaplan’s repertoire covers a gamut of styles and formats, ranging from intimate trios to orchestral-choral ensembles. Cantatas, sinfonias and concertos are scheduled. Several composers who preceded Bach will be represented as well as some who succeeded him. These include Felix Mendelssohn, who is credited with the Bach revival of the 19th century.

The final concert of the festival will be devoted to Bach and two contemporaries: George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. All three were born in 1685.

For schedule and information, visit

Lissa Schneckenburger

After a decades-long career performing worldwide as a traditional fiddler and ballad singer, Maine native Lissa Schneckenburger’s personal experience as a foster and adoptive mother ignited a passion to create a musical tableau of family, love, trust and resiliency.

The result is a powerful album titled “Thunder in My Arms,” which was released two weeks ago. Schneckenburger, who now lives in Vermont, is currently on tour promoting this album, which differs substantially from previous concerts and recordings.

For starters, it’s the first to exclusively feature her own writing. Second, it brings in more instruments and a bigger sound. Displaying a sonic tapestry with rhythmic pulse and bass line, the songs swell with electric guitar, piano and strings, and at times explode with brass and saxophone. Riding above this rich and alluring mix are Schneckenburger’s expressive vocals, giving life to tender and potent lyrics.

“Thunder in My Arms” takes the shape of a song cycle about attachment, parenting and trauma. Sung from myriad viewpoints, the album’s tenor ranges from brazen and innocent, resilient and triumphant, softly confessional and sweetly comforting.

Catch Lissa Schneckenburger at 7 p.m. May 31 at the Portland House of Music, 25 Temple St. Call 805-0134.

The Bach Virtuosi Festival is the first of Maine’s many summertime classical music events. The 2019 edition opens this Sunday in Portland.

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