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Let the fireworks begin

BFOM brings Beethoven
by Christopher Key

The only way I can think of to improve on a gloriously sunny afternoon is to witness the opening concert of the Bellingham Festival of Music in the evening. It’s always fair weather when these superb musicians come to town. It also means that I get a little extra aerobic exercise from participating in the standing ovations that are almost de rigueur for BFOM performances. That’s not to say they are not earned. Not by a long shot.

Maestro Michael Palmer, whose programming instincts are uncanny, chose an all-Beethoven program to open the season and it was a rouser. The Leonore Overture #3, Op. 72A was one of several openings for Beethoven’s opera Fidelio that got discarded. As Dr. Ed Rutschman points out in his program notes, it was because the Leonore was just too good. It told the whole story of the opera before it began and it’s a thrilling bit of musical storytelling. The kicker to the story is that the closing concert in this year’s series will be a complete performance of Fidelio. Nice bit of bookending, that.

The opera and the overture are all about that mysterious “Immortal Beloved” that the composer yearned for. Like love itself, the Leonore is a musical roller-coaster ride. It features a huge dynamic range that would daunt lesser musicians. The BFOM orchestra pulled it off with aplomb. The blistering string passages were as crisp as a fresh potato chip. Flutist Christina Smith got a chance to strut her stuff and did a lovely job. Palmer’s use of an offstage trumpet was particularly affecting.

Guest artist Arnaldo Cohen is something of a polymath, having taken honors in both violin and piano at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro while simultaneously pursuing a degree in engineering. He performed as a professional violinist before committing to the piano. I can’t help but wonder what he would have accomplished had he focused on the violin or engineering. Judging from his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 37, he made the right choice.

Photo courtesy Bellingham Festival of Music.

Reviewers have often described him as a “big” pianist and his sound certainly justifies that. But he accomplishes it with an effortless ease that borders on the nonchalant. In some ways, he reminds me of the late Oscar Peterson, who could do the most astonishing things on the piano while making it look like he was doing nothing more strenuous than enjoying a beer in the backyard on a sunny afternoon. There was no hesitation as the audience leapt to its feet and refused to let Cohen go until he had performed an encore.

Following the intermission, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93. This was a special treat as the Eighth doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the Seventh or the Ninth. That’s a shame because the Eighth demonstrates the composer’s playful, witty side that belies all those glowering portraits. Along the way, he manages to pay tribute to both Mozart and his mentor, Haydn.

As I have noted before, the BFOM musicians are so uniformly superior that they make a small orchestra sound much bigger. That was amply demonstrated in this performance. It’s not often that the basses get a chance to show off as much as they do in this symphony. They responded with a booming authority that was a wonder to behold.

There were a few empty seats in the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center for opening night and that should never happen with a festival of this stature. The good news is that you might have a chance to score tickets to upcoming concerts if you get after it right now.

Violinist Janet Sung and cellist Julian Schwarz highlight the next concert on July 5 at the PAC. The 19-year-old Schwarz is the offspring of longtime Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz, who recently announced his retirement. The torch has been passed. Call the PAC box office at (360) 650-6146 or e-mail boxoffice@wwu.edu. Who knows? You might get lucky.

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