Summer Means Seriously Good Music at Bellingham Festival

Summer means a lot of things to a lot of people. A time to vacation, a time to spend long days lounging in the sun, a time to kick back and enjoy the outdoors, and a time to take in some top-notch music in some surprising places.  That’s right, music festivals seem to be synonymous with summer.  No matter your tastes in music, you can pretty much find a festival for it.  I live in one of those places.  In fact, the Bellingham Festival of Music was one of the reasons my husband and I chose to move to this Northwest Washington city. At the time that we were considering relocation, we were astonished to discover this community, located just a few miles from the Canadian border, where, for two weeks in July, you could pick a performance with world-class classical playing in concert halls that seated no more than 500 people.  It reminded me of so many small European cities where music is part of not only the culture, but fabric of daily life.

We have long since become huge fans of the Bellingham Festival of Music,, and set aside those two weeks every year to attend at least some, if not all, the concerts.  The festival has evolved through the years, as good ones do.  It struggled a few years ago to survive financially, but thanks to a dedicated board of directors and loyal followers, the festival emerged stronger than ever.

Conductor Michael Palmer leads the Bellingham Festival of Music orcehstra in its 21st season now underway.
Conductor Michael Palmer leads the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra in its 21st season now underway.

The festival orchestra, under the baton of conductor Michael Palmer, is like a finely tuned instrument. Many of the members have now played together for years here so that instincts nearly take over when it comes to anticipating what both the conductor and the music demand. It is no wonder. Among their number are principal players from major orchestras across the country, who, for two weeks, alight in Bellingham to enjoy the incredible summer weather in a spectacular natural setting while performing classical music for an appreciative, yet discerning, audiences from Bellingham and the neighboring cities of Seattle and Vancouver B.C.

Oboist Joe Robinson
Oboist Joe Robinson plays at a private home event as part of the 2013 Bellingham Festival of Music. The event was a fund-raiser and farewell party for Robinson who was principal oboist for the festival’s orchestra until the end of the 2013 season.

Thanks to the festival, I’ve heard some memorable music in what I’d describe as ‘intimate’ settings for the musicians onstage.  Performances such as the with international opera star Josie Perez singing the title role in a staged version of Carmen in the 1,500-seat Mount Baker Theatre which sold out that concert.  Or the recital in nearby Mount Vernon’s 300-seat McIntyre Hall–acoustically designed by those who also did Seattle’s renown Benaroya Hall–by then principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, Joe Robinson. Or the chamber music concert at Mount Baker’s ski lodge staged against he snow-capped mountains.

Last night, the Music Festival kicked off its 21st season with another first-class  program including  Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor with soloist Stefan Jackiw.  This was Jackiw’s third time at the festival.   This 29-year-old violinist quickly became a festival favorite after making his initial appearance in 2010.  His international acclaim has soared as well with the Washington Post music writer describing him as possessing “talent that’s off the scale.” That talent clearly apparent at last evening’s performance as the handsome young man, of Korean and German parents, gave concert-goers yet another stunning musical memory.

Violinist Stefan Jakiw first appeared with the Bellingham Festival of Music Orchestra in 2010.
Violinist Stefan Jackiw’ first appeared with the Bellingham Festival of Music Orchestra in 2010.

This year, I’m especially excited about the upcoming performances this week by an up and coming young string quartet that is winning both recognition and awards all over the world. And, the violist is a locally grown young man named Jeremy Berry.  Known as the Calidore String Quartet,, this musical foursome got its start at Los Angeles’ Colburn Conservatory of Music where Jeremy had gone to continue his musical studies after graduating from the Julliard School of  Music.  Together the quartet, that also includes violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan and cellist Estelle Choi, are charming and impressing audiences and collecting grand prizes at prestigious chamber music competitions such as the Fishoff, Coleman, Chesapeake, and Yellow Springs. They are well on their way to becoming one of the next outstanding chamber music groups and it’s a treat to have them on the schedule at the Bellingham Festival of Music.

The Calidore String Quartet visits the Pacific Northwest to perform with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra in a concert at Western Washington University. The quartet will also play in recital during the music festival's 2014 summer season.
The Calidore String Quartet visits the Pacific Northwest to perform with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra in a concert at Western Washington University. The quartet will also play in recital during the music festival’s 2014 summer season.

On Tuesday, July 8, they will join the Festival Orchestra onstage to perform Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47. This is a technically difficult piece, particularly for the quartet’s violinist (the composer was himself a violinist). It will give the Calidore a chance to show just how well they can handle what has become a solid part of the chamber orchestra repertoire. That performance will be followed on Thursday, July 10 with a recital by the Calidore.  The evening’s line-up includes Beethoven’s string quartet, Op. 18, No. 1; Tenebrae by contemporary Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov, and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, known as “Death and the Maiden,” after the composer’s earlier song on which the second movement is based. Both concerts will take place in Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center. Tickets are still available.

While this is the Quartet’s first solo artist appearance with the Festival, they have played in Bellingham previously as part of  ‘Play it Forward’, a collaborative program by the Bellingham Music Festival and the Whatcom Symphony during which musicians perform and play in area schools. The Calidore String Quartet  blew away audiences with their performances so much so that the Festival engaged them for this year’s summer schedule.

The  Festival also sponsors a Welcome Home series  in the spring that features young musicians who are currently studying music performance at a major university or conservatory of music. It gives young musicians an opportunity to perform, enriches the Bellingham community and helps start a career.

In addition, the Festival sponsors ‘master classes’ with guest artists and principal players from the festival orchestra with university-level music students.  The classes are free and open to the public and provide yet one more opportunity to experience classical music in a special, intimate way. A few years ago, I sat in on a master class with piano virtuoso Leon Fleischer. He was so generous, enlightening and understanding in his interaction with the students who played for him that day.

With last night’s concert, the Bellingham Music Festival is off to another great start of creating yet more memorable musical performances. For those of us who live here, it is an extraordinary opportunity to hear world-class music right in our neighborhood.  For those of you who don’t, it’s worth planning a visit to our little part of the world.