History of the Festival

Nestled between the mountains and water, Bellingham, Washington’s spectacular natural beauty provides the ideal backdrop for the celebration of classical music. In 1993, noted American conductor Michael Palmer and renowned cellist, Robert Sylvester, who was at that time Dean of The College of Fine and Performing Arts and Director of Cultural Affairs of Western Washington University, recognized the yearning of the community of Bellingham to hear live classical music of the highest caliber and their willingness to support it, and founded the Bellingham Festival of Music. The dedicated group of volunteers who formed the first Board of Directors shared their vision and tirelessly built the financial and civic support required to bring the Festival into existence.

Under the baton of Maestro Palmer, the Festival became an annual tradition of presenting world class soloists in summer programs of classical music, performed by an orchestra composed of principal-chair musicians drawn from orchestras across North America. Taking advantage of the extraordinary scenic beauty of Bellingham and surroundings, concerts have been held at such diverse locations as Western Washington University, the White Salmon Lodge on the slopes of Mount Baker, the Mount Baker Theatre, and venues at the Bellingham harbor.

Over the years, the Festival has attracted an array of internationally celebrated guest artists to join the Festival Orchestra and Chorus to create unforgettable musical experiences for a generation of audiences. Such luminaries as violinist Sarah Chang, guitarist Pepe Romero, Metropolitan Opera stars Frederica von Stade and Heidi Grant-Murphy and pianists Alicia de Larrocha and Garrick Ohlsson, among others, have thrilled Festival audiences with their extraordinary performances and have put Bellingham on the musical map of America.

Recordings of live performances from the Bellingham Festival of Music have been broadcast on nationwide radio. In 2000 the Festival produced a three-CD set of the complete Piano Concertos of Beethoven featuring Garrick Ohlsson with Michael Palmer conducting the Festival Orchestra. These performances were recorded live at the Festival on the Natural Soundfields label. In 2009 and 2010, the Bellingham Festival of Music received consecutive National Endowment for the Arts grants, a resounding endorsement of the quality of the Festival and the value of the Festival to the national cultural tapestry.