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Skeptical reviewer converted

Beautiful music, beautiful setting
by John French

Vaunted Editor (VE) to Humble Reviewer (HR) – VE: Would you review a chamber music concert? HR: Sure. VE: It’s the Bellingham Festival of Music. HR: Great! VE: It’s at the cruise terminal. HR: Riiiiiiight. So off I go with all the anticipation of seeing my dentist for what promises to be a really lousy afternoon of listening to delicate chamber works at Bellingham’s own version of Ellis Island.

How wrong I was! The atrium at the cruise terminal proved to be ideal for chamber music with the window section providing the necessary focus for the sound, not to mention a fabulous view.

First on the bill was Johannes Brahms’ Quintet in F minor for Strings and Piano. HR has said in a previous review that Brahms ain’t easy, either to listen to or play. Brahms is not even easy for Brahms. This piece first showed up as a quintet (no piano), then for two pianos (no strings) and even a version for quintet with two cellos (no piano) that Brahms evidently burned. This version performed today had the approval of Clara Schumann (Brahms main sounding board on items compositional) and was presented beautifully.

Sometimes referred to (not so much) jokingly as Brahms’ Third Piano Concerto, you can immediately tell why. Jeffrey Gilliam and company took masterful control from the onset of the Allegro movement and never gave up until the end of the ferocious finale: Presto section. Along the way, we heard the strings soar in the Andante second movement and to the surprise of HR, Gilliam’s fingers did not fall off in the rhythmically tricky Scherzo. In talking to Mr. Gilliam after the piece, I discovered he had a blood blister right under the nail of his fifth finger which should have made this even more difficult. But he let the thunder roll when called for and all of the musicians received a much deserved standing ovation for their efforts.

One side note: the piano Gilliam used was a 5’10” Steinway Model A that is well-known to HR. It belonged to the late Professor Dr. David Schaub – given to WWU by him – and this reviewer spent several summers practicing on it. It is always nice to see that an old friend is being well taken care of.

After intermission, the survivors of the Brahms (minus Gilliam) and another quartet came together for the other piece of the afternoon. Do you remember what you were doing when you were 16? I was trying to get a date with Ann Metzger and learning how to use a stick shift. Felix Mendelssohn composed what is arguably one his greatest pieces of music, the Octet for Strings. In four movements (Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Presto) he weaves magic by using endless ways of working all eight instruments in various combinations. The strings were electrifying when they played the exact line in unison in the first movement, as an example. The haunting Scherzo has as its inspiration the “Witches Sabbath” scene from Goethe’s Faust (thank you, Dr. Rutschman – HR did not know this) and the lilting Presto brought to a close a wonderful afternoon’s sights and sounds that I did not think were possible in such a setting.

If you have not had a chance to see any of the Bellingham Festival of Music concerts year, you are missing a level of music making that we don’t get a chance to see all that often in Bellingham. And, by the way, HR did learn how use a stick and never did get a date with Ann.

Next on the festival bill is a program featuring Rossini, Britten, Liszt and (sigh) Brahms on Wednesday, July 13. This concert is back at the WWU PAC (don’t you just hate three-letter abbreviations?) and features tenor Richard Clement. Tickets, if any, are available by calling (360) 650-6146 or by e-mail: boxoffice@wwu.edu.

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