Kal Sugatski plays viola on a stone wharf on the back side of Mackworth Island. The island, connected to Falmouth by a causeway, is the location of the next Vigorous Tenderness, a concert series started by Sugatski that celebrates the change of seasons and amplifies marginalized voices in chamber music. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In summer 2020, Kal Sugatski was sitting in a socially distanced circle of friends around a campfire, pulling cards from a tarot deck. Sugatski, a professional violist, had recently moved from New York City to their home state of Maine. They posed a question to the cards: “What should I be doing right now? What does the world need?”

The card had an answer: “An offering of vigorous tenderness.”

That offering literally became Vigorous Tenderness, a concert series that celebrates the change of seasons and amplifies marginalized voices in classical music. Nearly four years later, the outdoor events now draw hundreds of visitors and dozens of musicians every three months on the equinox or solstice, with the next concert happening Thursday. The response has been so strong that Sugatski is forming a nonprofit to leverage more fundraising for Vigorous Tenderness in the future.

The goal, as Sugatski puts it, is to create “a more utopian classical music experience.” That means the programs prioritize works by people of color, LGBTQ+ people and women. The series is funded by grants and donations, and the concerts are free so the price of admission does not create a barrier. The concerts are outside, for guests who are immunocompromised or those who don’t feel comfortable going to a formal hall.

Jordan Guerette, a Portland composer and guitarist who has played at Vigorous Tenderness multiple times, said the concerts could be an entry point to classical music for some in the audience – a child who wants to wander, for example.

“I see a lot of people that are not your stereotypical classical music goers, people of all ages,” he said. “My friend brought her toddlers to one of them, and you probably couldn’t bring them to the symphony. It’s more accessible.”


The audience applauds a performance by the Burnurwurbskek singers in the fading light at Vigorous Tenderness, a vernal equinox concert at Wells Reserve at Laudholm in March. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Sugatski, 35, grew up in Portland in a family of musicians and music teachers, and started playing viola in the city’s public schools. They first encountered the instrument in a string demonstration in fourth grade. They loved the sound and also did not want to carry an instrument as large as a cello. (“I was always a really practical kid,” Sugatski said with a laugh.)

They studied with the Portland String Quartet, sang in a local chorus with the celebrated organist Harold Stover, and earned degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music. Sugatski is particularly interested in contemporary chamber music. They find playing a composition that has never been recorded presents a challenge, a thrill, a responsibility. In more recent years, they have also found an increasingly diverse world beyond the classical canon.

Musicians perform Peruvian-American composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Tarqueada” at Pine Cove in Range Pond State Park in Poland as part of Vigorous Tenderness in 2023. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“My sense is that new music has split into a lot of different paths that feel more creative or inclusive,” Sugatski said. “The point is not to make the musician suffer. The point is to generate something new with the instrument. Fifteen or 20 years ago, all the contemporary music I was playing was written by white men. As more and more voices were included and prioritized, we’re seeing something that isn’t just athletic feats and impossible intellectualism. We’re seeing what is profound art and what resonates in our bodies. I think classical music has always been asking those questions, but the inclusion of more voices has opened up a lot more paths for where music is going.”

Sugatski established a career as a violist in New York City but decided to move back to Maine during the pandemic. They currently live in Standish.

“I watched the whole classical music world crumble and everything went online,” Sugatski said. “Some of my colleagues did really cool and creative things with the Zoom concert, but I felt really unsatisfied that we could only experience classical music through phone speakers or computer speakers, so I designed this concert series in the really dark days of the pandemic.”


The sun sets behind the Burnurwurbskek Singers as they perform a song that combines traditional Penobscot voicing and rhythms with a modern arrangement during the Vigorous Tenderness vernal equinox concert at Wells Reserve at Laudholm in March. At eight locations throughout the reserve, musicians repeatedly performed one or two songs by different queer composers or composers of color as audience members wandered from location to location at the pace of a museum visit. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The first concert was on the fall equinox in September 2020. More than 150 people showed up to Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, a sign to Sugatski that others also missed the live music experience. The crowds multiplied at subsequent concerts, which have drawn more than 600 people at times. The musicians have played at venues such as Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, the Eastern Promenade in Portland and Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth. The music might be inspired by the weather – what the waves are doing, what the leaves are like at that time of year. The program also often responds to what is happening in the world; for example, Sugatski once commissioned a piece to raise awareness about the construction of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Scarborough.

While the pandemic restrictions that prompted the series are no longer, Vigorous Tenderness has continued because audiences continue to want it.

“The big community response has been unbelievable and nourishing, and supporting and inspiriting,” Sugatski said. “I had been really hesitant to form a nonprofit and make all of this official because I wanted to make sure that there was this community-demonstrated need for this music, and I think there has been. The people that come concert after concert, the people that are new, that have just discovered us, the reactions that folks have, the feedback that we’ve gotten, that is so meaningful to me and motivates me to do the tremendous amount of work it takes to turn a state park into a concert hall.”


Sugatski likens the format of a Vigorous Tenderness concert to an art gallery or museum. On Thursday, the summer solstice concert will take place at Mackworth Island in Falmouth, where a roughly one-mile trail forms a loop. (The venue is a dream location for Sugatski, but the logistics required some extra planning. The Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing offered its parking lot on the island, but spots will still be limited, so guests are encouraged to carpool, walk or bike.)

Audience members will be able to start walking in either direction to find eight stops along the island path – at the end of a stone jetty, on a sandy beach, in the midst of fairy houses, in the pet cemetery. They will hear a solo cellist play a piece by Cuban composer Calixto Alvarez, a quartet perform “Gay Guerilla” by the Black American composer Julius Eastman, a violinist playing the world premiere of work by Indigenous Hawaiian composer Leilehua Lanzilotti paired with poems by Maine-born poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.


Kal Sugatski, left, and Katherine Liccardo perform a piece by Jerod Impichchaachaaha titled, “Abitahánta’ The Hunter Who Was Not So Great,” at a Vigorous Tenderness concert in Yarmouth in September. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Vigorous Tenderness has a roster of 90 musicians based in Maine who have performed at the seasonal concerts. (They are paid for their work, an important tenant from the start of the series.) One is Katherine Liccardo, a North Yarmouth violinist who moved from New York to Maine four years ago and now helps organize Vigorous Tenderness. She described Sugatski as “incredibly adventurous and creative and visionary.”

“There’s so much intention in their work, and everything is sought out in order for people to have a full experience,” Liccardo, 33, said.

She said the experience as a musician is entirely different from that of a concert hall – more freeing, more intimate. When she plays the same piece on loop for an hour, she has the chance to try a different approach each time. When the audience is so close, she can see their reactions more clearly than when she is on a more formal stage.

“The idea that some of this music has never even been played in Maine is such a cool thing,” she said. “We’re bringing this music here. That feels really special and expansive to our industry.”

Guitarist Jordan Guerette performs a piece by Italian composer Emilia Giuliana at Vigorous Tenderness in September. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Guerette, 37, has played at Vigorous Tenderness concerts in all seasons. On a winter solstice, he played an electric guitar powered by a car batteries, wearing fingerless gloves stuffed with handwarmers. Last summer his partner, clarinetist Maria Wagner, played in a canoe on the water.

“It’s always cool and surprising how Kal keeps finding new locations,” Guerette said. “They haven’t put it at the same place twice yet, and when they are farther from Portland, I get this idea in my head that no one is going to be there, and there’s always people there.”

“It’s the only time that a lot of people interact with classical music, and that’s cool,” he added.

That’s true for Antona Briley. She lives in South Portland and works as a school librarian, and first heard about Vigorous Tenderness from social media and local music educators. She does not have much experience with chamber music and at first pictured stoic musicians in black clothes. But she attended her first concert a couple years ago with her husband because they wanted to hear live music when such opportunities were rare early in the pandemic. They are now regular attendees.

“You’re in nature, you’re freely roaming to these stations where there might be something like a cool Indigenous story being told with music or where the musicians are interacting with the river incorporating the sound somehow,” said Briley, 55. “It’s cool, unexpected, creative. It’s a nice opportunity to walk around in beautiful Maine spaces, and be surprised or moved or touched by the music and the performers.”

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