Classical music fest in the west carves out a home just a bit beyond Vancouver

Classical music fest in the west carves out a home just a bit beyond Vancouver
Nor did I expect it to be. A small city (population about 80,000) in the northwest corner of Washington State, just over an hour’s drive south of Vancouver, it was known even to me, a former west coaster, primarily as the site of the less-than-famous Western Washington University.

What I discovered the other day is that it is also the site of a festival worthy of any Vancouver music lover’s drive.

Ontario has a number of such festivals in places equally unrecognized by the Britannica, such as Parry Sound, Picton, Elora and, as of this summer, Collingwood. Indeed, summer music festivals seem to thrive in places off the so-called beaten path. What is special and unlikely about this one is that it is based primarily on orchestral concerts.

Now, small as it is, Bellingham does have a local symphony orchestra. But the three-week Bellingham Festival of Music (ending July 19) has a seasonal orchestra of its own, recruited from the ranks of major orchestras across the continent

Its principal horn and principal clarinet play in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, its principal bassoon in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Its concertmaster is also concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Richard Roberts has been summering as concertmaster of the Bellingham festival orchestra since 2004. Christina Smith has been principal flute for even longer. This, as artistic director Michael Palmer is quick to point out, is scarcely a pickup orchestra in the traditional sense.

Palmer himself is one of the reasons. A conductor of long experience and former music director of the Wichita and New Haven symphony orchestras, he was also founder of the American Sinfonietta, which toured Europe for ten years before succumbing to a changed economy.

Having become a property owner on Washington’s picturesque San Juan Island, he then went to the head of the music department of Western Washington University with an idea for a festival that would, among other benefits, heighten the university’s profile.

The university bought the idea and in 1993 the festival was born. Although still partnered with the university and housed on its forested campus, the festival has since become an independent, largely voluntary operation, with only the musicians receiving a paycheque.

“We knew after the first concert that we had something special,” the maestro revealed in a recent interview. “It was a matter of excellent timing. I could draw on some of the same players with whom I had been touring Europe and with them we had the foundation for our orchestra.”

Players are housed with local families and concerts generally take place in a 650-seat hall (smaller than ideal for a full symphony orchestra) in the university’s performing arts centre, augmented by off-site places for community concerts and master classes.

Because of its popularity as a retirement community, Bellingham has become home to executives from major corporations interested in having an ongoing cultural life. The festival needs them, depending almost exclusively on private support.

“We were at one time trying to be all things to all people,” Michael Palmer observes. “We began to lose our identity with our target audience.”

No longer. Today’s festival is once again the orchestrally based enterprise that has made it special for most of its 26 years.

The all-Russian season-opening concert I attended presented a typical symphonic program, opening with Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture,” closing with Rachmaninov’s massive Symphony No. 2 in E minor, with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major sandwiched in between.

The virtuoso Prokofiev concerto (a favourite in major piano competitions) offered a showcase for the 24-year-old artistry of George Li, a 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition silver medallist in Moscow worthy of any orchestra’s attention.

As for this orchestra, it performed in a manner worthy of festival exposure under the direction of its workmanlike maestro. No, Michael Palmer is not a glamorous podium personality and there was nothing particularly innovative about his interpretations.

And yet, here was music-making in the low-profile heart of Whatcom County that might have been more likely encountered in a major metropolis. That’s summer for you.
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