The soprano Sherezade Panthaki returns to Portland to participate in the Bach Virtuosi Festival beginning Sunday. She will come back to Maine later in August to sing at the Bay Chamber Festival in Camden.

Panthaki, who teaches voice at Yale University and sings internationally, is always grateful for the chance to perform in Maine, and especially this year. A year ago at this time, she was uncertain what direction her singing career would take given the uncertain path of the pandemic.

“But my calendar is actually looking quite full,” said Panthaki, who lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and is among the core performers of the Bach Virtuosi Festival. “It’s better than I would have expected last year at this time, when all of us in the performing arts worried what the state of our world would be when things came back. I am actually very hopeful how quickly performing arts organizations are working to get back to normal. Smaller organizations and smaller festivals are bouncing back more quickly. They have the capacity to be a bit more nimble and flexible.”

Lewis Kaplan Photo by Brian Kaplan, courtesy of Bach Virtuosi Festival

The Bach Virtuosi Festival is among them. Now in its sixth year, it celebrates the German-born composer by assembling some of the finest baroque musicians in the world to perform in intimate settings. Artistic director Lewis Kaplan committed to in-person performances in the spring, confident he and his peers could execute a safe festival, because the music of Bach helps heal wounds. “We live in a crazy world, and a dangerous world. The solace that Bach brings to people is the reason we do this,” he said.

The festival opens Sunday and continues for one week, though Aug. 7, with five performances, mostly at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland. One concert will be at Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Kaplan, who teaches violin at The Juilliard School and who helped establish the Bowdoin International Music Festival more than a half-century ago, founded the Bach Virtuosi Festival as a way to bring what he considers the highest-caliber baroque musicians in the world to Portland to honor the authenticity of Bach’s creations without compromising the integrity of the music.

Last year’s festival was a virtual affair – and a highly successful one. Based on the popularity of its “Brotherhood/Sisterhood” program, which included original narration from Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Amanda Gorman and others, last year’s five-concert virtual festival drew 125,000 views from around the world.

“That is an extraordinary number for classical music,” Kaplan said. “Virtual has it rewards, but there is no direct feedback. You don’t know if it’s one person or 125,000 people. There is nothing like performing for people and understanding that it works both ways – you give to them, and they give to you.”

In person, this year’s five concerts might draw about 1,000 people or so. Instead of watching on the internet, they will sit within a few feet of the musicians – with their devices silenced and tucked away.

Lewis Kaplan conducts as Sherezade Panthaki sings. Photo by Brian Kaplan, courtesy of Bach Virtuosi Festival

Among the programs this year is one called “TRUTH,” a follow-up to last year’s “Brotherhood/Sisterhood” that included texts about humanity, equity, love and kindness. “TRUTH” includes texts by Shakespeare, Socrates, Gandhi and others, with narration from four actors from Portland Stage and accompaniment by festival musicians. Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart will direct the program.

The truth is an unwavering standard, Kaplan said. When it is compromised, society fails. “There are standards we all have to live by, and it seems to me, truth is at the center of it,” he said.

Other themes are celebration, joy and healing, all expressed through the music of Bach. The music will help lift spirits and offer hope, Panthaki said.

“Maybe we are not fully whole yet, but there is comfort to be found and a way forward.”


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