“My art is all about breaking down barriers,” says Emily Isaacson, artistic director and conductor of both the Oratorio Chorale and Portland Bach Experience (PBE), a professional weeklong festival that weaves the music of Bach into the rhythms of everyday life.
Breaking down barriers. Surprising words coming from an artist whose main focus is music of the Baroque and Classical periods. But Isaacson believes great music has the power to move all people. And intertwined with her passion for making music is her drive to make it accessible.
Confronting barriers is nothing new for Isaacson. During her years of training—earning two master’s degrees in music and a doctorate in conducting—some professors were less than encouraging. One suggested she set her sights on leading a children’s choir because “women are good at nurturing.” Others told her that as a female conductor she’d never be taken seriously. Or, as a young woman who looked a certain way, she’d never be able to communicate power or strength. Isaacson is a willowy blonde whose good looks radiate intelligence, curiosity and warmth—looks that, in most fields, would confer advantage.
Today, Isaacson shrugs off the absurdity of such polarized thinking. Clearly, she says, women and men can be nurturing and commanding. But at the time, the repeated barrage formed a pool of self-doubt that only deepened when, as a freshly minted PhD, she had trouble finding a job.
As a high school student in Brunswick, she had sung with the Bowdoin College Choir, and saw her future teaching at a New England liberal arts college. After applying to dozens of schools—selected as a finalist at several, but never offered the position—dark thoughts surfaced. Maybe, she thought, she was simply not good enough.
Isaacson considered alternatives such as getting an MBA in hopes of finding a career that might leverage her music education. But with the support of her husband, family, friends and her own inner resolve, she determined to push through. For several years she taught music in public schools in Washington, DC, Chicago and Boston, where she also led a high school chorus. In 2008, she helped launch the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, while building personal and professional relationships with Boston’s top musicians. Isaacson was certain she could slowly build a career in Boston. But she saw the city itself as somewhat closed to the new ideas she wanted to try out. And in the back of her mind was a desire to return to Maine.
When she learned Brunswick’s Oratorio Chorale, a symphonic chorus that performs with professional orchestras, was looking for a new artistic director, she pretty much lunged for the opportunity. Oratorio board member and long-time chorister Carrie Strasburger notes that of the 20 cover letters the search committee received, Isaacson’s stood out for its blend of professionalism and warmth. She says, “I put the letter to the side, and told the other board members, ‘This is the one I want.’”
At her audition, Isaacson, then eight months pregnant, easily won over the other board members with her knowledge, skill, humor and “amazing” energy and enthusiasm. She had concrete ideas about growing membership, raising standards, tackling challenging repertoire and engaging more of the greater community. Strasburger recalls, “It was as if she knew what we wanted without our having to tell her.”
Shortly after giving birth to her first child, Anna, Isaacson took over as artistic director—first commuting from Boston to Brunswick while enlisting her more-than-willing parents in childcare. A short time later, she and her husband, Matt Tzuker, bought a house in Portland’s West End, where they are now raising their children Anna, 5, and Levi, 2½.
Six years into the job, Isaacson has grown Oratorio well beyond the board’s expectations—performing 16 annual concerts that generate critical praise and sold-out crowds.
With the benefit of hindsight, Isaacson believes not getting her dream job straight out of grad school was the best thing that could have happened. Even her dark period of self-doubt had its benefits by helping her feel closer to the inner turmoil of the composers whose work she interprets. And not slipping into the more circumscribed role of college music professor opened doors to entrepreneurial opportunities.
With energy and imagination, Isaacson has pushed those doors wide open to musical vistas that enrich the culture in southern Maine. Four years ago, she formed Sweetest in the Gale, an all-women’s chorus named for a line in an Emily Dickinson poem. Last year, Isaacson launched the nonprofit, barrier-breaking Portland Bach Experience, which sets early music performed by world-class players in unexpected environments like public parks, the Promenade, breweries and even the Bayside Bowl.
“For 200 years, this music has pretty much been confined to the same structures and settings,” says Isaacson. “I stepped back and asked how else can we build the experience—to make it easy and natural for more people to enjoy.”
Beyond outdoor events, available to all, PBE offers intimate salon concerts in art galleries and homes where guests can enjoy food and drink and get to know the musicians. At PBE brunches, children are welcome and treated to a short music program designed for families. Afterward, the children go off to be fed and cared for in another room, while their parents and other guests enjoy their concert brunch. As the mother of two young children, Isaacson knows helping parents resolve child care challenges also helps to break down barriers between people and great music.
Years ago, a much older mentor advised Isaacson, “Never assume you’re the smartest person in the room.” She took these words to heart and leads with warmth, confidence and an openness that endears her to audiences and fellow musicians alike. When tackling an unfamiliar work, she seeks the counsel and collaboration of more seasoned musicians. For Oratorio’s recent performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, Isaacson brought in world-class soloists who “live and breathe” the seminal early Baroque work.
The concerts’ principal violinist, Boston-based Scott Metcalfe, estimates he has conducted the work “at least three dozen times.” He expresses admiration for Isaacson as a “really smart musician—curious, musical and highly skilled.” Isaacson, in turn, says she’s grateful to Metcalfe for his many insights, which helped her shape and color her interpretation of the work.
New York City-based mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney, who has soloed with Oratorio and Portland Bach Experience, praises Isaacson for her ability to command authority while “still being open to other musicians’ ideas.” Among conductors, she finds that duality wonderful and rare. Likewise, Grammy Award–winning Esteli Gomez, a founding member of Roomful of Teeth, describes Isaacson as “a wonderfully supportive musical collaborator,” and a humanist who knows how to host her musicians—making sure they have access to “the amazing food and drink experience of this great part of Maine.”
“I care that what I do matters to other people,” says Isaacson, who was recently named Artist of the Year by the Maine Arts Commission. And while no one can have it all, she feels she comes in pretty damn close.
“I love that my daughter thinks it’s totally normal for her mom to be a conductor. That she and my son are growing up in a house where there’s always singing and music. And I feel extremely blessed that this thing I was working toward for 10 years—and then thought was unattainable …” She grows reflective for a moment, then brightens. “I’m doing it. Making a living making art. Making people happy. And raising a family in a place I really love.”