FALMOUTH – Portland’s two Bach festivals – the Bach Virtuosi Festival, which wrapped up last week, and the Portland Bach Experience, which presented its opening concert Friday evening at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary, in Falmouth – have worked hard this year to differentiate themselves.

The Virtuosi offered straightforward performances built almost entirely around a balance of Bach’s sacred and secular music, the principal exception being a concert devoted to music by Bach’s predecessors and successors, the latter heard chiefly in works directly inspired by Bach. The Portland Bach Experience has taken a path that, depending on what you want or expect in a music festival, is either innovative or puzzling.

For starters, its schedule is heavy on events in which music seems more like an add-on than the principal focus – brunch and beer concerts, for example, and family attractions, like a musical instrument petting zoo and a class where dance moves are used to teach children about music. The festival’s website also seems meant for people who don’t care what music is being played – traditionally an important factor in choosing concerts to attend. For several events, the composers are listed, but the works are not.

The program book does list all the music, but when you page through it, you can’t help but notice that there’s very little Bach in this Bach festival. The opening concert was devoted fully to Monteverdi’s “Vespers” (1610). A program of music in early 17th century Mantua includes works by Monteverdi’s contemporaries, and one devoted to music of the Thirty Years’ War offers works by Martin Luther, Pope Leo X and plenty of Heinrich Schütz. It’s all great stuff. But where’s the Bach?

When Bach’s music does turn up, it’s performed exclusively in settings where other things will compete for your attention. You can hear Bach’s “Coffee” Cantata at a brunch concert at the Portland Museum of Art on Sunday morning. Bach’s first cello suite (or, actually, half of it) can be heard, amid works by seven other composers, at the “Bach and Beer” cocktail hour concert at the United States Custom House, on Tuesday.

The biggest Bach offering will have come and gone by the time you read this, but it is worth noting. Called “Suite Ride Through Portland,” it promised all six of Bach’s cello suites at different outdoor locations around Portland on Saturday (although locations were listed for only five). And for anyone apprehensive about the likelihood that ambient noise and other distractions might impinge on the experience of hearing these magnificent, unaccompanied cello works, the festival leaves little doubt that your fears are well-founded, with suggestions like “Children are encouraged to hear Suites 3 & 4 as inspiration for dance or narrative play,” or “Enjoy a Bachsicle as you dream along to Suite 5.”


The Monteverdi “Vespers,” thankfully, was presented as it ought to be – in a straightforward performance at a church with fairly good acoustics, by minimal (but powerful) vocal and instrumental forces. Emily Isaacson, the festival’s artistic director, conducted the choral movements, but wisely sat out the pieces for only two or three singers with continuo (generally theorbo, played with a fine sense of color and texture by Deborah Fox) and sometimes also organ (played by Michael Beattie), where a conductor would be superfluous.

Monteverdi was known, at the time, as a composer of madrigals, in which the music brought the texts to life in a vivid, painterly way, and he applied those skills amply in the “Vespers,” his first collection of sacred settings. It is an extraordinary work – sacred music on the grandest, most dramatic scale, with choruses scored for up to 10 independent vocal lines, and with singers and instrumentalists placed in different locations to create an echo effect.

There are no surviving records proving that Monteverdi performed the work at his audition for the position of maestro di cappella at the Basilica San Marco, in Venice in August 1613. But he was in Venice for the Feast of the Assumption, for which this music would have been ideally suited, and his appointment to the post was announced four days later.

At its best – for example, in the opening “Deus in adjutorium,” for which Monteverdi audaciously borrowed the vibrant Toccata that opens his first opera, “L’Orfeo” (1607) – the Friday evening performance was vibrant and joyful, beautifully blended and bristling with the fervor one would expect in the setting of lines from a Psalm pleading for salvation. Elsewhere, there were occasionally ragged choral entrances, and occasional flaws in exposed instrumental writing, but these were fleeting and scarcely tarnished the performance as a whole.

Among the vocalists, Sumner Thompson, Jonas Budris, Madeline Healey, Sarah Brailey and Kate Maroney stood out, but all 10 singers contributed robust and sometimes affecting performances. So did the instrumentalists, most notably the cornetto and trombone players, who doubled impressively on recorders.

Still, if Bach was to be an also-ran, wouldn’t it have made sense for the festival, now in only its second year, to rename itself the Portland Baroque Experience?

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


Twitter: kozinn

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