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Tasty concert at the PAC

Festival serves fine cuisine
by John French

A good concert should be like a fine meal…several different courses served with a common denominator. Tonight’s concert served by the Bellingham Festival of Music at Western Washington University was just that. Three very different courses and a wonderful common denominator: Austria in general, and Vienna in particular.

Our first course was the Symphony #83 in G minor by Joseph Haydn. Often referred to as the “Hen,” because of the interplay between the oboes and violins in the first movement, it is the second of six so-called “Paris” symphonies written in 1785. The performance tonight was bright to point of shimmering, with a wonderful give and take of themes between various instruments of the orchestra.

Maestro Palmer held everyone to brisk but appropriate tempi and the violins were in their glory, especially in the first movement. Of equally fine mention were the woodwinds in the third movement minuet and the very vivacious 12/8 Finale. A wonderful start to our meal.

Next up was the Schubert Unfinished Symphony #8 in B minor. From the very opening pianissimo carried by the low strings (cello and double bass) this was pure Schubertian magic. I have no idea if that is really a word, but that is the only way I can describe what I heard. Following the soft introduction, and the scary movie music part (yes, that bit was used for the opening of the 1932 Dracula movie), came the absolutely beautiful themes carried, again, by the woodwinds. Most notably the oboe, bassoon, and flute and they were recognized individually (as they should have been) by Maestro Palmer to a very warm ovation by an enthusiastic audience.

Now for the meat and potatoes, and I do mean meat! Let’s be perfectly clear from the very beginning, Brahms ain’t easy, either to listen to and certainly to play. The Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor was Brahms last orchestral piece. It also was his way of making amends to an estranged friend of his, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms had sided with Joachim’s wife in a not too pleasant divorce, and this was his way of saying he was sorry. On top of that, this was written in the autumn of his life which means one of the words frequently used when describing his music: dense.

Add to that that you need not one, but two top flight instrumentalists to play this piece and you’re work is cut out for you. And it starts immediately (or 35 seconds into the concerto to be precise) with virtuosic cadenzas by both soloists. Janet Sung (violin) and Julian Schwarz (cello) were up to the challenge. If I had any one criticism, it would have been that Mr. Schwarz was too intense, especially in the opening allegro movement. I really felt that he might inadvertently saw his cello in half on more than one occasion.

Photo courtesy Bellingham Festival of Music.

However, by the stunningly languid opening bars of the second movement, he had calmed down enough to blend exquisitely with Ms. Sung. And this piece demands it as Brahms, sometimes, treats the two instruments as one. One finishing a scale the other has started, for example. And the hell-bent trade-offs in the fiery third movement are just what I called them. Sung, Schwarz, Palmer and company were right along for the full ride.

Photo courtesy Bellingham Festival of Music.

All and all this was a most rewarding night with three of Austria’s best representatives in the music writing department. And that is a small, but very impressive club. The Festival is to be commended for providing a venue for these two rising stars, who, with a little time, should have outstanding careers on their respective instruments.

Next on the bill, the sensational young violinist Stefan Jackiw returns for an encore after wowing audiences last season. There may still be some tickets left for the Saturday performance, 7:30 p.m. at the WWU PAC. Call the box office at (360) 650-6146 or order by e-mail: boxoffice@wwu.edu.

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