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Out & About: Bowdoin International Music Festival turns 50

Lifestyle

Out & About: Bowdoin International Music Festival turns 50

Two anchor producers of southern Maine’s busy and eclectic summer season of performing arts are launching their 2014 offerings.

The crown jewel of Maine’s classical music festivals turns 50 this year. The Bowdoin International Music Festival, by far the state’s biggest, gives about 50-60 concerts every summer in half a dozen different series. BIMF starts up June 30 with the first of its Beethoven Monday series.

Arundel Barn Playhouse, comfortably ensconced in the rustic, circa-1880 Smith Sisters barn, represents the epitome of summer theater. Producing artistic director Adrienne Wilson Grant likes jukebox musicals, and she’s starting 2014 with “8-Track: Sounds of the Seventies.”

Bowdoin International Music Festival

Fifty years ago, Lewis Kaplan had an idea. The 20-something New York music professor – a virtuoso violinist with a twinkling eye, a quick smile and a passion for teaching and performing – wanted to start a summertime festival on the Bowdoin College campus. The late Robert K. Beckwith, the longtime chairman of the music department, enthusiastically bought into the idea and together they launched the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival in the summer of 1965.

Kaplan and Beckwith had a two-pronged plan. World-class faculty, drawn from top conservatories, would teach a cohort of resident students by day and perform concerts for the public at night. The festival has never deviated from that basic scheme.

By 2014 the original plan multiplied many-fold, and some years ago the enterprise was renamed as the Bowdoin International Music Festival in order to reflect the worldwide draw of its faculty of about 55 and its approximately 260 students.

This summer marks the 50th edition of the festival, and it’s also the last under Kaplan’s direction. When the final notes of this summer fade to silence, Kaplan will turn over the artistic reins to new leadership: brothers Phillip and David Ying, who comprise half of famed Ying String Quartet.

Kaplan plans to go out with a bang, and this year’s festival has new items and enhancements. The biggest of these will begin on June 30, when the former Monday Sonata series changes venue and switches themes. It will be played in Crooker Auditorium at Brunswick High School, and this summer’s objective is to perform the entire collection of string quartets written by Ludwig van Beethoven over the course of the festival’s six weeks.

Here’s the general scheme of the other two big concert series. The Wednesday Upbeat! series will start July 2 at Studzinski Auditorium on the college campus. Upbeat! programming tends to be somewhat lighter, more modern and more eclectic. The flagship series runs Fridays, beginning July 4. The biggest work on that program will be Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with soloist Ilya Kaler performing with the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra, conducted by Kaplan. Kaler’s many honors include winning gold medals at three of the world’s most prestigious violin competitions.

Other series include Artists of Tomorrow, variously scheduled over six weeks, where some of the world’s brightest up-and-coming performers will strut their stuff. The community series is also variously scheduled, and performed at various locations in Brunswick and nearby towns. Finally there’s the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, a three-day celebration of music that is mostly created by living composers, some of whom live at the festival for the six weeks. Gamper is slated for July 31, Aug. 2-3.

For ticket info and the full lineup of concerts and other public events, please visit bowdoinfestival.org.

‘8-Track: The Sounds of the Seventies’

The “jukebox musical” has been basic fodder for Arundel Barn Playhouse from its inception, and 2014 is a typical year for the company, with two on this summer’s schedule.

The basic concept of a jukebox musical is to assemble and re-package an otherwise disparate collection of songs into a Broadway-style stage musical. Jukebox musicals are comparatively inexpensive to produce, and they typically draw enthusiastic audiences who fondly recall the music, which often dates from decades past.

Plots in jukebox musicals are typically minimal: thin story lines that barely provide a thematic context for the different songs, which are the prime attraction and the real reason for creating the show in the first place.

Arundel Barn’s 2014 season-opener is “8-Track,” a jukebox musical which goes even further in the direction of thematic and theatrical minimalism. There’s no plot whatsoever, or even any spoken dialogue for that matter.

Subtitled “The Sounds of the Seventies,” “8-Track” is a collection of about 50 songs penned by numerous composers and lyricists and recorded by many different artists during the decade of the 1970s.

(For those too young to know from personal experience, the title comes from the long-obsolete 8-track tape cartridge format which was an early successor to vinyl records and a predecessor to CDs. This format enjoyed about 10 years of commercial success, primarily in the 1970s.)

The title also suggests some organizing principles for the musical selections. Songs are grouped into eight suites, each labeled a “track” in the printed program. Examples include “Track 3: War & Peace,” “Track 6: Road Trip” and “Track 7: Disco.”

Although the printed list of songs is long and impressive, it’s also a bit deceiving. Some of the biggest, longest and most influential songs of the era, such as “American Pie” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” get only a few seconds of performance time apiece.

The show was conceived by Rick Seeber and the musical arrangements were adapted by Michael Gribben. In keeping with the absence of plot, there is a parallel absence of characters. Two men and women perform the vocal parts, with a backing band of four: keyboards, guitar, bass and drums.

The two men are simply identified in the program as “Happy Soul” and “Confident Male,” while the two women are billed as “Seeker” and “Feminist.”

Director/choreographer Allison Mosier has assembled a cast of four young professional actors – recent graduates of college theater programs. Among the men, tops is “Confident Male” Roger Reed, who sports a strong baritone voice with excellent stage presence. Make that militant stage presence in two of his solo numbers: “War” and “Takin’ It To The Street.”

Of the two women, my favorite was “Feminist” Aili Venho, whose alto voice and commanding stage presence help carry her big solo numbers: “I Am Woman,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Your Song.”

Kudos to Mosier’s energetic choreography, which involves nonstop dancing in the “Track 7: Disco” segment.

Arundel Barn Playhouse, 53 Old Post Road (just off U.S. Route 1) in Arundel presents “8-Track: The Sounds of the Seventies” with 8 p.m. performances through June 28, plus a 2 p.m. matinee on June 27. Call 985-5552 or visit arundelbarnplayhouse.com.