Classical music: the Bellingham Festival celebrates its visionary founder

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Michael Palmer saw potential for something special in the Pacific Northwest, decided the small Washington state town had what it needed for a classic festival

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Bellingham Music Festival

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When: July 1 to July 24

Evening concerts at 7 p.m.; Chamber Music by the Bay matinee on Sunday, July 10 at 4 p.m.

Where: Western Washington University Performing Arts Center and Bellingham Cruise Terminal Atrium

More info, tickets: bellinghamfestival.org


The Bellingham Music Festival returns with renewed splendor in July, another Vancouver-adjacent classic event picking up the pace after two years of uncertainty and cancellations.

This 29th festival will celebrate the enduring work of founder Michael Palmer. Palmer started as an assistant conductor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (when he was just 21), conducted everywhere, and is currently the Charles Thomas Wurm Professor Emeritus of Orchestral Studies at Georgia State University.

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Palmer was a visionary who saw the potential for something special here in the Pacific Northwest and decided Bellingham had what it took for a classic festival.

Was he ever right! At the start of the festival, Bellingham was beginning a decades-long metamorphosis. There were at least three promising prerequisites for summer classical music: the city had a ready-to-use student cohort at Western Washington University as well as attractive music spaces on campus; more and more retirees were moving into the neighborhood, people who found the area both attractive and relatively affordable; add a grassroots local audience, including Vancouverites willing to venture south of the border, and voila! The festival was on.

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This 2022 Michael Palmer Commendation Season includes nine events, the first of which is a chamber program: Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Hob. III:1, The Hunt; Mozart’s String Quartet in B flat major, K. 458, The Hunt; String Quartet No. 3 by Jörg Widmann, Jagdquartett (2003); and Brahms’ String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 67, all performed by the festival’s regular headliner, the Calidore String Quartet.

Founded at the Colburn School in Los Angeles in 2010, Calidore recently joined the faculty of the University of Delaware School of Music and is known for its commitment to classical and contemporary repertoire. The three classic works are staples of the repertoire. Jörg Widmann’s extraordinary Hunt Quartet is one of the most impressive string quartets of this century. Widmann wraps and embroiders a fragment of Robert Schumann’s Butterflies with new musical techniques and a healthy dose of theatre. No spoilers here, but if ever a piece of chamber music elicits strong reactions, this is it.

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Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will perform Beethoven's five concertos at the Bellingham Music Festival.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will perform Beethoven’s five concertos at the Bellingham Music Festival. Courtesy photo, direction of Opus3

There is another chamber music concert, matinee and reception on Sunday July 10 in the atrium of the Bellingham cruise terminal, then the rest of the events are performed by a festival orchestra conducted by Maestro Palmer, with works by Beethoven on all but one program.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw is featured on Saturday July 2 in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy; there is a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto on Friday July 8; soprano Maria Valdes sings Strauss on Tuesday July 12; and the festival ends with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on Sunday July 24.

There’s a mini-festival as part of the July 15-17 festival, with Garrick Ohlsson playing Beethoven’s five piano concertos. Ohlsson has a strong following in Vancouver, and hearing him in Beethoven’s grand concerto sequence will be a fascinating dive into how the Viennese master transformed the concerto genre.

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Although crossing the border still requires some planning, the festival experience is worth it. WWU’s 650-seat main hall is intimate and sonically satisfying; the campus, with its gardens and contemporary sculptures, is pleasant on a long summer evening; and free parking is easy to find.

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