PORTLAND, Maine — Johann Sebastian Bach jammed everywhere — in pubs, coffee houses, churches and courts. So it’s not much of a stretch to reunite suds with baroque sounds.
The Portland Bach Festival, which starts June 17, is re-establishing ancient connections between this once contemporary, now lofty 17th and 18th century music with new audiences by adding beer, spirits and food and inviting everyone from musical nerds to neophytes to join the party.
“Come as you are, bring who you are with, stay as long as you want and enjoy,” said Emily Isaacson, a Portland-based conductor and co-founder of the festival, which is now in its second year.
She came up with the idea to marry the two in a Bach and Beer event, one of many concerts happening over eight days in Greater Portland. Why beer?
“Bach performed at Zimmerman’s beer hall, so the idea is not unique. During Bach’s entire life he was a struggling musician. This is a new twist for modern audiences,” said Isaacson, the fest’s associate artistic director who seeks to “put this music back in the context it was heard and to enjoy it the way it was intended to be enjoyed.”
That means less classical settings abound to liberate this richly rewarding classical music from its fusty image.
“I believe if people fall in love with this music, they will enjoy it as much a I do,” said Isaacson, who dreamed up the idea to combine beer with Bach for last year’s fest. The trend has caught on. At Ocean Gateway Terminal on June 19, musicians — local, international and from esteemed institutes such as Juilliard — will perform 15 to 20 minute sets combined with a rare instrument exhibition. Beer from Shipyard and Rising Tide will be served and sipped during the show.
Why the spin?
“People are frustrated with the elitist sheen and feel they have to take a classical music for dummies lesson before a show,” Isaacson said. “All these expectations take away from what the artists attended.”
Across town at the Bayside Bowl, a Bachtails event kicks off the fest Saturday. In the bowling lanes musicians will perform concertos as the crowd sips themed cocktails such as the Brandenburg Blue and dine on trendy bites. From flute solos in the lounge to cello action in the alley, a set of 15 ,15-minute concerts are performed from 5 to 8 p.m.
“People will receive a menu of musical offerings. You can attend one or two, bowl with your family. It’s free and open to the public,” Isaacson said.
Combining beer with Bach has caught on in pop culture. Kevin Oates, a Maine-based cello player who hosts the Bach to Bock podcast with his brother Matty Oates, considers the combination a great way to attract new fans to old music.
“People don’t know how to get into it, so we show them through great beer. We pair every episode with a song and a beer style,” Kevin Oates, who is promoting the fest this week on his podcast, said. The idea is “you can be cool, have a great time, have a beer and enjoy Beethoven’s 3rd,” Kevin Oates said.
Along with church and synagogue performances at the festival, another alternative event is Bach on a Blanket. The June 18 concert from St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth will be live streamed outside on church grounds.
Families can pack a picnic and enjoy the tunes drive-in movie style. “Crying babies and rowdy toddlers welcome,” Isaacson said.