Festival of Music continues making magic in Bellingham

Barbara Ryan – The Bellingham Herald, July 5, 2010
Bellingham’s quality of life attracts visitors, businesses, and new residents every year. It’s our gorgeous setting, perched between Mount Baker and Bellingham Bay. It’s our parks and trails. And it’s also the art and music that surrounds us.

The recent opening concert of the Bellingham Festival of Music left me breathless. It wasn’t the drizzle or even the climb to the parking lot. I was stunned by the quality of the orchestral performance I heard here.

Musicians from major orchestras across the county have gathered here for 17 years to play together under the direction of Michael Palmer. They’re here from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, and New Haven Symphony, among others. Many are principals and concertmasters in their home orchestras.

How many times in the past 17 years have I heard first-timers to the festival say, “I can’t believe I’m hearing this quality of music in this town of 78,000.”

Our festival would be highly prized in any major city in the world! Flautist Christina Smith’s performance of a C.P.E. Bach flute concerto was a good example. The beautiful Smith, principal flute with the Atlanta Symphony, played this technically challenging work with the utmost agility, grace, and virtuosity. The maestro then conducted Beethoven’s Second Symphony, without a score, flawlessly, fully at ease with the music and in complete sync with the orchestra.

The Tuesday, July 6, concert brings pianist Horacio Gutierrez back to Bellingham after his riveting Bellingham debut in August, 2006. He’s appeared with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and orchestras in Amsterdam, Berlin, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, among others. He’s regular at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. He’ll play the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major here with the festival orchestra.

And for our “local girl makes us look good” story, soprano Heidi Grant Murphy comes home from New York City where she sings major roles at the Metropolitan Opera. She has also sung with the Salzburg Festival, Frankfurt Opera, Netherlands Opera, Opera National de Paris and Santa Fe Opera. She’ll perform in a joint recital on Monday, July 12, with cellist Joshua Roman and pianist and husband Kevin Murphy. She will sing again on July 24 in an all-French concert with the orchestra and the Bellingham Festival Chorus and is offering a master class for local singers as well.

Young cellist Joshua Roman returns after having electrified last year’s audience. Violinist Stefan Jackiw, who has played with the Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland orchestras, among others, performs the Mendelssohn Violin Concert in E minor on July 18, the final festival performance.

Since its founding in 1993 by conductor Michael Palmer and renowned cellist Robert Sylvester, the festival has brought amazing orchestral performers and world renowned soloists to Bellingham. Hundreds of volunteers have housed and fed musicians, organized the festival’s fund raising and logistical efforts, and marveled at the results of their efforts when the maestro’s downbeat fills the concert hall with the magic of classical music played by the world’s finest musicians.

What a gift this festival brings to the community every year. And what an amazing statement it makes about the community that it is willing to work so hard, and give so much, to bring this experience to Bellingham.

For information, go online to bellinghamfestival.org.

Barbara Ryan is a founding board member of the Bellingham Music Festival and a former Bellingham City Council member.