Festival of Music

The soundtrack of summer


What: Bellingham Festival of Music

When: 10 am Sat., Jul. 1 -21

Where: WWU Performing Arts Center, Bellingham Cruise Terminal, other locales

Cost: Free-$60


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Summer means different things to different people. For some, it means hiking and kayaking and communing with nature. For others, it means swim lessons and summer camp and putting the kids to bed sans baths and with smiles on their faces. For still others, it means backyard barbecues, refreshing cocktails and socializing under the stars.

For me, summer means not having to wear every single item of clothing I own, all at the same time. It’s the season during which I voluntarily expose my skin to the elements and the elements don’t make me regret it.

Of course, summer also means music, of all kinds, all over the place. And for nearly a quarter of a century, summer has meant a celebration of some of the finest classical music to be found anywhere, courtesy of the Bellingham Festival of Music.

Sometime during the early 1990s, current composer and artistic director Michael Palmer and cellist Robert Sylvester realized Bellingham had an appetite for world-class classical music that was not being satiated. Instead of using their contacts to book a show here or arrange a concert there, they decided to consolidate all of their efforts into a prolonged program of performances, and, in 1993, the Bellingham Festival of Music was born. They formed a nonprofit, and baked their intentions right into their mission statement, saying they were “committed to presenting outstanding live classical music performances to Northwest Washington audiences.”

Toward that end, they would invite professional musicians from a wide range of renowned orchestras to Bellingham to come together and form a mega-talented super-orchestra (my term, not theirs) for the duration of the festival. As well, performances by the carefully collated super-orchestra would be augmented and accented by guest soloists. Another piece of this ambitious puzzle saw the Festival of Music breaking out of the confines of traditional concert halls, using this region’s natural beauty as a backdrop to the summer soundtrack the musicians would create.

As with many people who undertake such noble endeavors, they probably had no idea what they were getting themselves into, and while the festival itself has undergone ups, downs and changes over the decades, its basic premise has remained sound and its founding mission intact. The super-orchestra has been a thing to behold, year after year. The soloists have put their unique spin on tried-and-true pieces of music. And Festival of Music concerts have taken place everywhere from the slopes of Mount Baker to the shores of Bellingham Bay.

These days, most festival festivities can be found at Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center Concert Hall—that’s where the 2017 iteration of the event will begin at 7:30pm Sat., July 1 with a performance by the festival orchestra, virtuoso pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, and the Calidore String Quartet, who have won prestigious and lucrative awards (including the $100,000 M-Prize), performed at every legendary venue (Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center) and earned accolades and acclaim worldwide.

The Calidore Quartet is a returning festival favorite (and this year’s ensemble in residence), as such, they’re scheduled to play again the following night, Sun., July 2, when they will treat the audience to a chamber program of Mozart, Janacek, and Dvorak.

The Calidore String Quartet will depart Bellingham and the Festival of Music for another year, but the chamber music portion of the event is just beginning—indeed, it’s the gateway through which the festival enters the community at large to draw current and future fans alike. Toward that end, and to fulfill the outreach portion of the nonprofit’s mission, free chamber music concerts will happen July 6 and 19 at the Whatcom Museum, July 8 at Mallard Ice Cream, and July 10 at Lynden’s Jansen Art Center.

But to see the lineup of distinguished soloists and experience the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra in all its full, fleeting glory, you’ll have to ante up for one or more of the WWU PAC concerts. Acclaimed pianist, MacArthur Fellow and renowned writer Jeremy Denk is the guest soloist for the all-Beethoven program July 8, violinist and Philip Glass collaborator Tim Fain will interpret Dvorak on July 13, and Grammy-winning cellist Zuill Bailey will channel Haydn on July 16 in a performance that will also include works by Respighi and Mendelssohn.

But no Festival of Music would be complete these days without a couple of much-anticipated events, the first being the Chamber By the Bay concert—happening this year on July 9—at which festival orchestra principals will play Mozart and Brahms in the Bellingham Cruise Terminal’s amazing Dome Room and the audience is treated to snacks and wine in what has to be one of the more tasteful and civilized concert experiences this sometimes rowdy city has to offer. The final of the long-awaited festival happenings is, appropriately enough, its grand finale on July 21, and this year the Festival of Music goes out with a bang—and a whole lot of the legendary Leonard Bernstein in commemoration of his (almost) 100th birthday. Sure, they’re a year early with their homage to the beloved composer, but everyone celebrates summer a little differently.

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