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A Grand Slam

Kovacevich masters Mozart
by Christopher Key

Mozart and Schubert on the same concert program should come as no surprise. But Maestro Michael Palmer and the Bellingham Festival of Music Orchestra are made of sterner stuff. They put Stravinsky in the leadoff spot tonight and it worked as well as putting Ichiro at the head of the batting order. The second concert in this year’s BFOM series proved that the wildly successful first concert was no fluke. This team is a serious contender. Enough sports clichés.

No matter how often you hear Igor Stravinsky, it seems that there are always new surprises in his music. Tonight’s selection, Concerto in Eb (Dumbarton Oaks), called to mind the old saw that Washington, DC, is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern hospitality. Stravinsky titled the work after the estate in the nation’s capital owned by Robert Woods Bliss, whose wife commissioned the work. The often whimsical piece ranges from the languorous to the intense, but always recalls the mathematical precision of Bach. Maestro Palmer used a 15-piece ensemble for this performance and it worked perfectly. Clarinetist Laura Ardan and flutist Christina Smith gave stunning performances.

Guest artist Stephen Kovacevich then brought the crowd to its feet with a masterful performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491. Mozart’s father, Leopold, allegedly said that he found some of his son’s works “astonishingly difficult.” That may be so, but Kovacevich made it look easy. The first movement features an almost continuous series of arpeggios wherein Kovacevich’s fingers became nothing but a blur. No blurring of the notes, however. Each arpeggio was as crisp and clear as spring in Salzburg. The orchestra was with him every step of the way and the audience brought Kovacevich back for two well-deserved bows.

Photo courtesy David Thomas.

Photo courtesy David Thomas.

Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C Major, D. 944, has been called “The Great.” That may be due as much to its quantity as its quality. The work was originally judged unplayable, in part due to its length, and Schubert never heard it performed. It wasn’t until 11 years after the composer’s untimely death in 1838 that Robert Schumann discovered the symphony and brought it to the concert stage with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. Not a bad pair to have on your team, even posthumously. “The Great” is, indeed, something of a marathon. As in any marathon, anyone who crosses the finish line is a winner. Palmer and his musicians won easily. The brass section was nothing short of brilliant, but this work is owned by the strings. They were breathtaking from start to finish and the audience had enough endurance left to bring Maestro Palmer back for four bows.

Next on the BFOM schedule is Johannes Brahms’ stirring A German Requiem this Saturday evening at the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center. There may be a few tickets left, but don’t wait long. This is a sensational concert series with world-class musicians and they deserve SRO houses. Call the PAC box office at (360) 650-6146. For more information on future concerts, go to www.bellinghamfestival.org.

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