The Sounds of Silver

Summer is a reason in itself to celebrate in the Pacific Northwest but this summer, there’s one more thing to celebrate and that’s the silver anniversary of the Bellingham Festival of Music.

I’ve written before here about the festival which happens every July since I moved from Los Angeles to Bellingham.  In fact, the festival is one of the reasons that brought me and my family to Bellingham.  Although I didn’t realize, the festival at the time we first began to consider and explore this area was only three years old.  As the three visits we made before deciding to relocate here were all in August, we missed the festival but became aware of it.

Maestro Michael Palmer greets orchestra concertmaster Richard Roberts at the opening concert of the festival’s 25th season.

Soon after settling in, we began to buy tickets to attend some of the concerts and we’ve been faithful festivalgoers ever since.  Through the years, we’ve heard some amazing music performed by an orchestra with top-notch players from major orchestras around the country, including the N.Y. Philharmonic, the L.A. Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony and the Montreal Symphony.  And the guest artists who have soloed with them are world-class.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here in my small community listening to the kind of classical concerts that you usually only find in large, metropolitan cities.

A map marking all the cities from where come the musicians that make-up the festival orchestra.

For any music festival to have survived 25 years is an accomplishment, let alone one that thrives in a community of 100,000 (and less when it first began) and now runs on all volunteer help.  Much credit must be given to the festival’s hard-working boards who  put in hours and hours of time all year to bring the festival together.

A salute must also be given to the man who’s been the artistic director and conductor since the beginning, Michael Palmer.  Palmer, who I’ve come to know in recent years, has a gift for pulling together musicians, most of whom only play together once a year, to present tight, strong performances of classical favorites as well as contemporary new pieces.  It’s a strenuous and demanding job in the three short weeks of the festival’s duration.

Artistic director Michael Palmer, left, confers with composer Aaron Jay Kernis whose “Symphony No. 4, ‘Chromelodeon'” was given it’s West Coast premiere at this year’s festival.

Of course without such talented and professional musicians, the festival would not nearly be the quality it is.  Sitting among the ranks of players are the first oboist for the Boston Symphony, the first violist of the Cincinnati Symphony, the first clarinet and flutist from Atlanta’s Symphony and the first bassist from Seattle’s Symphony, to mention but a few.

This year, much to my delight, also joining the violin section is a young woman named Rachel Frankenfeld Charbel who grew up in Bellingham, played in the Sehome High School orchestra before going off to college at the University of Texas in Austin to study music.  She was among one of my sons’ closest friends as a kid and now plays with the Cincinnati Symphony.  It makes the festival’s 25th anniversary particularly special to those of who have watched her mature into the fine musician she now is.

Violinist Rachel Frankenfeld Charbel grew up playing in Bellingham and is now a member of the festival orchestra.

Also special to Bellinghamsters is the Calidore String Quartet that has become recurring guest artists at the festival.  This young, gifted ensemble has emerged as a major chamber group winning awards, prizes and recognition throughout the world.  To have them return every year for the festival is a special treat for all of us.  The violist also happens to also be a Bellingham native and coincidentally, a classmate of Charbel’s.

Music Festival chair Karen Berry, right, with two members of the Calidore String Quartet, cellist Estelle Choi and violinist Jeffrey Myers.

Only three concerts remain in this year’s 25th anniversary season; one this evening with guest violinist Simone Porter playing Prokofiev’s “Violin Concert No. 1 in D Major;” a free chamber concert on July 18 at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art and the final closing concert on July 20 featuring the festival chorus singing Poulenc’s “Gloria” with the orchestra.  If you’re in close range, I encourage you to attend one of these and if not this year, plan to go next year and celebrate yet another season with the Bellingham Festival of Music.



Violins, Nopales and Kansas Connections

This was supposed to be a piece about the fabulous cactus salad that my friend Juan Ramirez cooks up.  But during the course of putting it all together the other evening, the topic turned to violins.  Specifically, his violin.


Composer Ramirez with Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra conductor Michael Palmer after a rehearsal for his “Suite Latina” at the 2016 festival.

A composer and violinist, Juan has been in residence in Bellingham for the past three weeks where he has played in the first violin section with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra.  Last year, his work, “Suite Latina”, was performed by the orchestra with the Calidore String Quartet as soloists. The music evokes the sensuous dance rhythms of the composer’s native Mexico. The piece was originally written for string quartet and first performed at the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival in 2001. Juan adapted it for quartet and orchestra, especially for the Bellingham Festival where it was given its world premiere and a standing ovation from the audience.

The 2016 festival audience gives a standing ovation at the world premiere of Ramirez’ “Suite Latina” for string quartet and orchestra.

But the celebrated composer is also known for culinary artistry as well, with his specialty being his native Mexican dishes, especially his mole, made from a family recipe.  It’s a recipe that takes him three days to concoct and includes much grinding and pulverizing of ingredients using a blending machine from India in order to get just the right texture and consistency.  Most Americans I know think of mole simply as sauce with Mexican chocolate as the key ingredient.  Chocolate, specifically cocoa, is a main ingredient in Juan’s family recipe, but it is only one of 18 ingredients that go into his tasty, slightly spicy sauce.  Adding his mole, which is more pasty than the runny stuff usually poured over standard Mexican fare, to homemade enchiladas or to chicken turns the ordinary into an extraordinary treat!

Juan serves up his mole dish.

I watched Juan in my kitchen warming the mole on the stove and assembling the equally as delicious cactus salad made with nopales, or the big, flat paddle-like leafs from the prickly pear plant, that we began talking about violins.

I asked if he ever had any trouble traveling with his violin on airlines, given the recent headlines about one professional violinist whose instrument the airline, United, insisted be checked as baggage instead of carried on board with her.  “Not since the new laws,” Juan answered referring to the FAA rules revisions in 2015.

Then I asked where, when and how he found his violin.  “That’s a good story,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.  His violin was made in 1748 by Carlo Antonio Testore of the Milano school of violin makers who were crafting their instruments in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  It’s uncertain exactly how it came to America, but it was the possession of a plantation owner in Macon, Georgia prior to the Civil War.  He gave it to one of his favorite slaves who, upon the plantation owner’s death, “laid this instrument away as a keepsake,” according to a 1916 letter detailing the history.   The violin became the slave’s son, after his father died. The son had moved to the small town of Pratt, Kansas where he worked as a train porter.

At the mention of Pratt, I stopped Juan and told him that I was familiar with the town, having grown up in Kansas.  What a coincidence, I thought, for a musician who lives in Atlanta and plays with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to be standing in my kitchen mentioning Pratt, Kansas!  But the story continues..

The beautiful tiger grain of the back of Juan’s Testore violin is as rich-looking as the sound it produces.

The son, unable to pay a debt owed to F.A. Erwin, the writer of the 1916 letter, turned over the violin as payment. Eventually the Testore ended up in a violin shop in Wichita, Kansas.  Juan was a student at Emporia State Teachers’ College (now Emporia State University) in Emporia, Kansas (also a place with which I am very familiar) when he visited the Wichita shop to have his bow rehaired.  The shop owner took the violin out of its case, Juan said, and handed it to Juan to play.  “I fell in love with it and the sound,” he recalls. But being a college student attending Emporia on a scholarship, he had no money with which to purchase it. The violin went back into its case.

Juan transferred from Emporia to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When his teacher told Juan he needed a better violin he knew exactly the one he wanted. But when he contacted the Wichita violin shop owner Juan was told that an 80-year-old doctor had bought it for his son who had decided to take up the violin.  Juan was disappointed.

The composer/violinist proudly holds his cherished Testore violin.

Three years later, the violin shop owner notified him that he once again had the Testore violin. The doctor’s son, it seems, had switched from violin to accordion, and the violin was returned to the shop. Elated by the news, Juan dressed in his best clothes and walked down to the bank to ask for a loan in order to buy his prized instrument.  With the money granted, Juan booked a flight and headed back to Wichita where the shop owner took the violin out once again and handed it over to Juan.

It has now been his violin for nearly 46 years and he’s not likely to part with it anytime soon.  You might say the story has come full circle.  Juan plays it as a violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, only a little more than an hour’s drive from Macon where the instrument first was traced.  And in 1988, Juan took it with him to Milan, the city where it was made, and played it in the city’s cathedral.

The cactus salad is ready to eat!

His story wrapped up just as the cactus salad was ready to chill in the refrigerator. Those same hands, which so nimbly had moved all over the fingerboard during the playing of music by Leonard Bernstein in the concert the night before, now turned to the delicate task of rolling enchiladas drizzled, inside and out, with Juan’s grandmother’s mole. That is another story.



Beautiful Music in My Own Backyard

Summers in the Puget Sound area, where I live, don’t officially start, weather-wise, until July 13, according to local meteorologists.  But in Bellingham, summers begin when the musicians from around the country arrive for the Bellingham Festival of Music.  That happened last week.

The Bellingham Festival of Music begins its summer season with a picnic for the musicians at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.
The Bellingham Festival of Music begins its summer season with a picnic for the musicians at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.

The Festival, now in its 23rd season from July 1-17, is one of the things that I look forward to every summer. In fact, the Festival is one of the amenities that attracted us and ultimately convinced us to move to Bellingham. It must be a draw for the musicians too as every summer, 44 musicians from major orchestras across the U.S. and Canada (plus additional players as needed) assemble here to play two weeks worth of some of the most beautiful music in the world.  We like to think that they are also playing in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

It all begins with a welcoming picnic for the musicians, conductor Micheal Palmer, the chorus members, sponsors and the families who host the musicians in their homes during their stay.  This year’s picnic took place at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal which offers a terrific view of the Bay and Bellingham. It’s an ideal spot for returning and new musicians to meet this year’s Festival board members, local sponsors and the home hosts.

Janet Lightner,co-owner of Boundary Bay Brewery, served brews with her sister, Vicki, at the Festival of Music picnic.
Janet Lightner, co-owner of Boundary Bay Brewery, served brews with her sister, Vicki, at the Festival of Music picnic.

The potluck picnic, provided by the Festival Board member and volunteers, is tasty and plentiful.  Following appetizers and drinks, with local prize-winning microbrewery Boundary Bay serving up some of its finest beers, the picnickers head off to the buffet table and dinner. Afterwards, this year’s Board Chair, Karen Berry, officially opened the season by introducing maestro Michael Palmer who, in turn, introduced this year’s team of musicians.

Thumbs Up
Festival musicians Marci Gurnow and Christian Colberg give the buffet table a thumbs up at the opening picnic for the Bellingham Festival of Music.

Section by section, starting with the first violins of course, the musicians took their turn at the podium to share with the evening’s guests their answers to the question: “What was your most embarrassing moment as a musician?” There were some great ones: insects falling onto instruments and being flung into the audience, missed cues, parts of bassoons falling out during performances, women’s undergarments landing on violin scrolls during a Tom Jones’ show, auditions that turned out well despite mishaps and being encouraged to pursue other professions.  It all made for some entertaining anecdotes.

Many of the Festival’s musicians have been coming to Bellingham for years.  They have become a ‘family’ in the sense that they know one another’s spouses and children, have forged long-lasting friendships with their home hosts and share in the joys and sadness of one another’s lives. Last summer, one of the musicians stayed beyond the Festival dates in order to have her wedding in Bellingham. This year, a group from the orchestra is throwing a baby shower for an expectant father who’s playing here while his wife, nearing her due date, remained at home.

Bellingham Fesitval of Music Chair Karen Berry welcomes the musicians and guests at the opening picnic.
Bellingham Festival of Music Chair Karen Berry welcomes the musicians and guests at the opening picnic.
Maestro MIchael Palmer takes the podium to introduce the Festival musicians.
Maestro MIchael Palmer takes the podium to introduce the Festival musicians.

This long-term bonding has, over the years, made the orchestra tighter when they play together onstage. At least that’s my belief having now gone to concerts for the past 20 years. Although together for only a short time, with rehearsals only days ahead of each concert, they meld into a solid sound.  I have often found myself astounded to be sitting in my own backyard–nearly literally as the concert hall at Western Washington University where they play is within walking distance–and listening to world-class performances.

Principal bassist from the Seattle Symphony Jordan Anderson shares his ‘most embarrassing moment’ at the Bellingham Festival of Music picnic.

For Festival goers, the concerts are a bargain with ticket prices topping at $45 for premiere seating in a small, intimate performance hall of just 650 seats. I recall the many years that I lived in Los Angeles and

was a subscriber to the L.A.Philharmonic. Travel time from our home was 45 minutes at least, depending upon traffic, bargain tickets were usually no less than $45 and in the top tiers of the 3,000 seat hall, plus parking costs and don’t forget money for the babysitter. Granted, I no longer need to pay a babysitter, but all the other costs of hearing live classical music and experiencing outstanding performances in as beautiful a natural setting as you’ll ever find make the Bellingham Festival of Music an incredible deal. Especially for us locals.

Donna Lively Clark from the Festival orchestra's viola section tells the picnic guests how much she enjoys the shopping when she comes to play.
Donna Lively Clark from the Festival orchestra’s viola section tells the picnic guests how much she enjoys the shopping when she comes to play.

If you don’t live in the immediate area, you can spend the week vacationing and enjoying the classical music concerts at night and any one number of activities during the day–strolling the art galleries and shops, tipping a few brews on the ‘Tap Trail,” hiking or biking on one of our many trails, playing golf on one of 22 courses here, fishing, kayaking or sailing on the Bay. I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.


Making Music in Beautiful Bellingham

Bellingham’s Festival of Music’s 22nd season got off to a bang on Friday evening when the orchestra, under the baton of Michael Palmer, performed the rousing Overture to Royal Fireworks Music by George Frederic Handel. Though evening was unseasonably warm inside Western Washington University’s Concert Hall the audience wasn’t deterred and applauded for an encore from soloist Vadim Gluzman who gave a stunningly beautiful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra too sparkled when it played Mozart’s wonderful  (never can have too much Mozart) Symphony No. 36 in C major, the  “Linz”.

Violinist Vadim Gluzman greets fans and sign autographs following hisperformance at the 2015 opening night concert Bellingham Festival of Music
Violinist Vadim Gluzman greets fans and sign autographs following his performance at the 2015 opening night concert Bellingham Festival of Music

I often have to remind myself that I am in Bellingham, a city of only 80,000 located 20 miles from the Canadian border, and not in Seattle or San Francisco or even Chicago or New York when I hear this Festival orchestra perform.  Of course, the musicians who play in this orchestra for two weeks in the summer, come from orchestras located in those cities. As many of them have said, it’s equally a treat for them as well to perform here year after year (some have been with the Festival since the first year). They have made many friends with their ‘host’ families and those who come to hear them play. They enjoy the opportunity to play in a our beautiful city by the bay and welcome the chance to escape from the heat of their home environs. (This summer has been unseasonably warm for Bellingham.)

Audience members await the start of the chamber music concert staged in Bellingham's Ferry Terminal each year with stunning views of the bay and the city.
Audience members await the start of the chamber music concert staged in Bellingham’s Ferry Terminal each year with stunning views of the bay and the city.

It’s one reason the New York Times singled out Bellingham’s Music Festival, along with that of select others in the country, for its article by Michael Cooper which appeared in today’s paper. It is, as Cooper so aptly put it, like ‘summer camp’ for classical musicians.

For concertgoers, the festival brings to the stage some of the world’s best classical music and musicians,  without setting foot beyond the city’s boundaries. In my case, I am only steps away from the WWU campus where they perform.

Mary Kary and Joe Robinson play for guests during a farewell gathering given at a private home to honor their retirement from the Belingham Music Festival.
Mary Kary and Joe Robinson play for guests during a farewell gathering given at a private home to honor their retirement from the Bellingham Music Festival.

I have had the pleasure of listening to and getting to know, for example, former New York Philharmonic principal oboist Joe Robinson, both as a member of the orchestra and as a soloist. (Pinch me.) Robinson retired from the Festival two summers ago but his spot was filled by protegé, Keisuke Wakao, principal oboist for the Boston Symphony.  And I’ve heard some of the finest soloists, such as the Israeli violinist Gluzman, performing in classical music today.

It also brings back to Bellingham local artists such as soprano Katie Van Kooten who’s singing with opera companies and symphony orchestras all over the world, and young rising talent, such as the Calidore String Quartet, whose violist, Jeremy Berry, grew up only blocks from the concert hall where he saw musicians on the very stage where he now performs as part of the Festival’s guest artists.

The Calidore String Quartet visits the Pacific Northwest to perform in the Bellingham Festival of Music.
The Calidore String Quartet visits the Pacific Northwest to perform in the Bellingham Festival of Music at Western Washington University. The quartet is making a name for itself internationally and includes violoist Jeremy Berry who grew up listening to concerts on the Festival stage.

At this writing, tickets are still available for some concerts. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area, or coming to this corner of the Pacific Northwest in the next two weeks, make it part of your summer. If you can’t make it to Bellingham’s music festival this year, put it in your travel plans for next year. And then you, like so many of the festival musicians, may also find yourself returning year after year!




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.