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Blown away!

Violinist takes festival by storm
by Christopher Key

Due to my reviewing schedule last year, I was unable to witness a phenomenon known as Stefan Jackiw at the Bellingham Festival of Music. Judging from what I heard from those who were there, I wasn’t going to make that mistake this year. It’s a good thing, too, because this young musician should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Before Jackiw burned the place down, the festival orchestra lulled everyone into a false sense of security with a sensitive performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. This composition was one of the first blows struck by Debussy in his campaign to become the anti-Wagner. It demands a nuanced approach and Maestro Palmer and the orchestra responded beautifully. I heard things I never heard before and I’ve listened to this piece many times. Flutist Christina Smith led the way with some virtuosic help from harpist Rita Costanzi, clarinetist Laura Ardan and oboist Joseph Robinson.

Then Jackiw took the stage for Jean Sibelius’ Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47, and reality as we know it was suspended for an indeterminate length of time. The violin has many voices and if you think you’ve heard all of them, you haven’t heard Jackiw. He coaxes tonality from his instrument that is impossible to describe. I could use a whole thesaurus worth of adjectives. If I start with “a,” amazing, astonishing and astounding come immediately to mind.

Local impresario Jack Frymire and I chatted briefly at intermission and both of us wondered what kind of instrument Jackiw was playing. Given the time constraints imposed by the review, I was unable to find out. Upon further reflection, I have to think that Jackiw could make a garage sale violin sound like a Strad. The audience simply levitated at the end of the performance. Jackiw graciously responded with no less than two encores and it looked for a while as though the SWAT team was going to have to be called in to extract Jackiw from a crowd that didn’t want to let him go.

Most orchestras would find that a very difficult act to follow, but the festival aggregation is made of sterner stuff. They gave Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony #1 in C Major, Op. 21, a memorable ride. I say memorable because I’ve heard this symphony more than a few times and, once again, I discovered things I hadn’t noticed before. That, to me, is what makes this festival so special.

It’s possible that some major professional orchestras have delivered a more stirring performance of Number One, but I’m not easily convinced. Part of it is because I’ve heard it most often on recordings. The most expensive audio equipment still can’t capture that je ne sais quoi of a live performance and the festival orchestra has set the standard as far as I’m concerned.

In past years, I have found that the festival’s chamber music concert has invariably been my favorite. That’s next on the schedule Sunday afternoon at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal. I’m relieved that I won’t have to watch how they manage to get a nine-foot concert grand into that space, but the results should be spectacular. If there are any tickets left, they can be had by calling (360) 650-6146 or by e-mail: boxoffice@wwu.edu. Good luck!

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