Face the Music: Vigorous Tenderness to usher in another season

A performance from a summer solstice Vigorous Tenderness event. Photo by Jen Deraspe

For the past two years, at the start of every season, outdoor musical performances called Vigorous Tenderness have been held in celebration of the solstice or equinox.

I’ve attended several, and they’re exquisite, deeply moving experiences.

The next one is on the Sept. 22 autumn equinox, on Portland’s Munjoy Hill by the Loring Memorial and in the surrounding area.

At past gatherings, I’ve watched someone play a piano that had been lit on fire and got to try and destroy another with a sledge hammer. (Both were dilapidated, lest anyone think about having some kind of Phoebe Bridgers on “SNL” knee-jerk response.) But mostly, I wandered around the grounds of each event to find clusters of musicians performing stunning pieces of music.

A burning piano at the Dec. 21, 2020 Vigorous Tenderness event. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Founder, curator and artistic director Kal Sugataski is to thank for the wonderment that is Vigorous Tenderness.

Sugataski grew up and lives in Portland, although she’s also lived in Paris, Miami and Pittsburgh while playing with various symphony orchestras. Most recently, Sugataski spent 15 years living and performing in New York City. She’s been playing the viola for 25 years and also plays the violin.

She explained that Vigorous Tenderness was a response to the pandemic but also the need for radical change in classical music.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, as music was sequestered to solo performances online, I wanted to find a way to bring live, acoustic chamber music to the community as well as create more fulfilling, paid opportunities for Maine’s talented (but underemployed) classical musicians,” she said.

Sugataski’s solution was to create an art installation-type immersive musical experience that features several different chamber ensembles spread out so a crowd wouldn’t amass and could adhere to CDC recommendations.

“If the early pandemic had canceled a lot of major milestones in that first year, we could mark the passage of time by observing solstices and equinoxes,” she said.

The first concert was on the 2020 fall equinox, and a dozen musicians performed for about 150 audience members at Fort Williams. Sugataski and the various musicians she works with haven’t missed a solstice or equinox since and estimates that more than 5,000 community members have been to those eight concerts. “I have been absolutely blown away by the community response,” said Sugataski.

Vigorous Tenderness on the first day of summer, 2021. Photo by Jocelyn Leighton

The name for the concert series came to Sugataski in an unusual way. “Feeling lost in the early stage pandemic and grieving the music world that I knew and loved, I sat around a fire pit with friends and drew a tarot card.” The card had a description on it that prompted an “offering of vigorous tenderness.” Sugataski took this as a sign from the universe and ran with the idea.

Nineteen Maine-based musicians will perform Sept. 22 on instruments including violins, violas, cellos, Baroque violin, gamba (type of violin), voice, guitar, soprano recorder and percussion.

They’ll be performing pieces by Jessie Cox, Darian Thomas, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Yaz Lancaster, Isabella Leonarda, Melika Fitzhugh and others.

Every piece was chosen intentionally. “The music is curated to be in harmony with the landscape and the season – an oasis in a busy urban environment, sunset over the bay, fall vibes, music engaging with police violence, baroque ladies, chaos being organized, ancient sounds re-imagined and coming together.”

While this might sound a tall order, the musicians involved with Vigorous Tenderness make sense of it, and the performances are transcendent.

For Sugataski, the most important aspect of the performances is to foster radical change in classical music and radical equity in programming. “Vigorous Tenderness is centered around music by marginalized composers: composers of color, queer composers, women composers, gender expansive composers, disabled composers and other voices in classical music that have been too long overlooked.”

She considers bringing this music to Maine and changing the way people think about classical music as forms of activism. “I am driven by a mission for equity. It matters a lot whose music is being performed, who is listening, and how people are engaging with it.”

The shows are always free (although donations are accepted) and open to the public because it goes hand in hand with amplifying the voices of marginalized composers. “Classical music, like all major institutions, has a racist, sexist, ableist, oppressive history and ensembles around the country aren’t doing enough to quickly and radically address the harm that has been done,” said Sugataski.

She also put it another way. “While I love Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms, I never want to see another classical music program that is only straight dead white guys, there are so many more voices that should be heard.”

Hear some of these voices on Sept. 22. You won’t regret it.

Vigorous Tenderness: A Fall Equinox Concert
5:30-7 pm Sept. 22 (rain date Sept 23). Loring Memorial (where the Eastern Prom meets North Street), East End Community School, Community Orchard, Community Garden and surrounding locations. Follow on Instagram at instagram.com/vigorous.tenderness. Join the mailing list here.

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