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Festival orchestra rocks the PAC
by Christopher Key

When you put virtuoso musicians from around the country into the acoustically amazing Western Washington University Performing Arts Center and hand Bellingham Festival of Music Artistic Director Michael Palmer the baton, magic happens. Palmer, who has been with the festival for its entire sixteen years, not only attracts some of the best musicians the nation has to offer, but assembles imaginative and stirring concert programs. The festival orchestra held the audience spellbound for its first concert of the season tonight.

Photo courtesy Bellingham Festival of Music.

Photo courtesy Bellingham Festival of Music.

The concert led off with a snappy salute to Independence Day. Charles Edward Ives’ Variations on America is a whimsical take on the song that served as this country’s unofficial national anthem before the adoption of The Star-Spangled Banner. Ives was a church organist and introduced the composition at a July Fourth celebration in 1891. William Schuman orchestrated it in 1963. Variations on America takes the melody through musical styles ranging from march to polonaise to barbershop and the orchestra nailed every delicious note. The tune was originally lifted from Muzio Clemente’s Symphony No. 3 and has been riffed on by innumerable composers. This time of year, it’s probably best to forget that it also serves as Great Britain’s national anthem, God Save the Queen.

Aaron Copland is one of the best-loved American composers and Appalachian Spring one of his best-loved compositions. For this performance, Palmer chose to use an orchestra consisting of just the strings, three woodwinds and a piano. Good choice. The musicians wove a spell that took the audience to Appalachia and far beyond. The enchantment was such that some of us weren’t sure we were even on the same planet. Wherever it was that the orchestra took us, it was an enchanting trip.

There are some classical music snobs who sneer at Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, apparently because it is so popular. Whatever plucks your strings. The reason that so many people can quote from it is because it touches something deep inside that may be different for each person who hears it. From the short-short-short-long opening bar used as the victory theme during World War Two to the monumental closing chords, it’s a piece that has inspired musicians from Franz Liszt to Johannes Brahms to Chuck Berry.

Conductor Palmer put a lot of con brio in the first movement’s allegro. Only superb musicians could have maintained that blistering pace without missing a note. These are and they did. By the time they got to the third movement, Palmer was nearly coming out of his shoes urging his crew to greater heights, which they scaled with seeming ease. The opening night crowd couldn’t get to its feet fast enough at the end and brought Palmer and the musicians back for four bows.

Bellingham Festival of Music is an extraordinary asset to this community and you owe it to yourself to get to as many of the performances as you can. Next on the schedule is a program featuring Stravinsky, Mozart and Schubert. Classical music makes strange bedfellows. Tickets range from $32 to $42 and can be ordered by calling the PAC box office at (360) 650-6146. For more information on the upcoming concerts, go to www.bellinghamfestival.org/index.htm. I wouldn’t wait very long if I were you.

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