Out & About: Portland Bach Festival debuts

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With astronomical summer just around the corner, the pace of southern Maine’s performing arts activities continues to accelerate.

The big news for the early summer of 2016 is the launch of the Portland Bach Festival, a six-day celebration of the 18th-century German composer. Violin virtuoso Lewis Kaplan, a fixture on the Maine music scene since 1965, is the festival’s prime mover. It’s slated for June 19-24.

Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick launched its 2016 season last weekend with a reworked version of “Ghost,” a musical stage adaptation of the 1990 Hollywood hit of the same name.

Portland Symphony Orchestra wraps up its 2015-2016 season June 21 with an all-Norwegian program.

Also that same night, Portland Conservatory of Music offers a piano concert by faculty artist George Lopez.

Portland Bach Festival

The man who created Maine’s biggest classical music festival is at it again.

Lewis Kaplan, a violin virtuoso and longtime professor at the Juilliard School, co-founded the Bowdoin International Music Festival back in 1965 and served as artistic director for its first 50 years.

Now retired as artistic director – but still teaching and performing at the festival –Kaplan is launching a new venture that debuts this Sunday: the Portland Bach Festival.

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach will be featured in four concerts in two venues in a six-day time span, beginning Sunday and ending Friday. The repertoire will cover most of the composer’s formats and styles, including works for solo instruments, orchestras and voices. Kaplan himself will perform twice, plus he’ll conduct the festival orchestra at Sunday’s opening concert.

Emily Isaacson, who conducts the Oratorio Chorale, will assist Kaplan as co-artistic director.

During his tenure running the Bowdoin festival, Kaplan heavily promoted Bach’s music and once gave a lecture detailing the composer’s fascination with numbers and mathematical relationships.

But it’s the emotional appeal that most attracts Kaplan to Bach, as he made clear when we chatted last week.

“Why do it?” he asked rhetorically. “Because it is in my soul to do Bach.”

For an eloquent elaboration on his feelings toward Bach, he directed me to a piece he had written a few months ago for a Juilliard publication:

“Why Bach? I believe that no one has ever depicted the human spirit through music more deeply. I often compare him to Shakespeare: Styles and language may change, costumes may change, stagecraft may change, but his words and characterizations are forever. So too with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Whether it’s written in a sacred or secular mode, vocal or instrumental, serious or lighthearted – and whether it’s played on original instruments or ones that didn’t exist in his lifetime – Bach’s music speaks of eternal truth.”

Concerts are slated for St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth and St. Luke’s in Portland. For details, visit PortlandBachFestival.org.

‘Ghost’

A love story, murder mystery and ghost fantasy: Those are the unlikely ingredients that comprise the first show of Maine State Music Theatre’s 2016 season.

“Ghost” is a reworking of two prior versions of Bruce Joel Rubin’s story: the wildly popular 1990 Hollywood film and the much less successful 2012 Broadway adaptation.

MSMT’s new production of “Ghost” is a wonderful show. The writing team of Rubin plus Glen Ballard and Dave Stewart has crafted something they call a “chamber musical” that captures the intimacy of a love story, centered around actors Gregg Goodbrod and Liz Shivener, plus their nefarious, murderous friend, played by Mike Backes.

The show’s comic gem, and repeated scene-stealer, is actress E. Faye Butler, playing a storefront medium, a quack psychic who mediates between the worlds of the living and dead. Six other cast members play a variety of small roles.

I loved the music and the simple story line, so deftly directed by Marc Robin. The failure of the 2012 Broadway adaptation (only 136 performances and millions of dollars down the drain) has been ascribed to overproduction and over-reliance on special effects. It is to be hoped that MSMT’s newly revised, pared-down, totally intimate version will soon return to the Great White Way in triumph.

Maine State Music Theatre presents “Ghost” through June 25 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit msmt.org.

George Lopez

Not to be outdone by the Portland Bach Festival, the Portland Conservatory of Music will offer a companion concert on Tuesday by one of its faculty members.

Piano virtuoso George Lopez, who also serves as the Robert K. Beckwith Visiting Artist at Bowdoin College, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” a suite of 31 short solo pieces originally written for harpsichord (the modern piano hadn’t been invented) in 1741.

The “Goldberg Variations” rank among the most popular and frequently recorded of all Bach’s works. Tuesday’s performance will be given by a contemporary pianist who is completely at home in many styles and periods of music, including jazz. A globetrotting performer, Lopez’s Music in the Museum series at Bowdoin College has consistently sold out to audiences who enjoy his creative and engaging lecture recitals on the relationship of music to art and ideas.

I’ve heard him perform several times both in Maine and New Hampshire, and I appreciate his brilliant style and willingness to share his knowledge of music.

George Lopez performs at the Portland Conservatory of Music, 202 Woodford St., at 7:30 p.m. June 21. Call 775-3356.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

The sun shines 24 hours per day in parts of Norway during the summer. The day after this year’s summer solstice, the Portland Symphony Orchestra will shine its light on three Norwegian composers and one guest performer.

To wrap up the PSO’s 2015-2016 season, maestro Robert Moody has selected four works, ranging from old and familiar to new and exciting. Best known is a suite of music from “Peer Gynt,” which is composer Edvard Grieg’s lushly romantic take on a Norwegian folk tale and stage play.

Christian Sinding was a 20th-century composer who is often characterized as Grieg’s successor. He’ll be represented by his Violin Suite. The solo violin parts will be performed by Henning Kraggerud, a Norwegian virtuoso.

Kraggerud will also be featured in another piece, “Equinox,” by Ola Gjeilo, a contemporary Norwegian composer. Another work by Gjeilo is “Meridian,” which was originally written for a wind ensemble and later fully orchestrated especially for this performance by Delvyn Case, a professor of music at Massachusetts’ Wheaton College.

Catch the Portland Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. June 21 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Violin virtuoso Lewis Kaplan has been a fixture on the Maine music scene since 1965. This Sunday he launches a new project, the Portland Bach Festival.

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