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A stellar trek

Festival gets adventurous
by Christopher Key

Bellingham Festival of Music Artistic Director Michael Palmer has a gift for assembling interesting programs, but he outdid himself with Wednesday’s concert. He boldly went…well, you know. And it was a trip to the final frontier for those of us lucky enough to be strapped in.

Palmer took the time to explain that he built the program around Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31. He also explained that a serenade, in the orchestral sense, is all about a group of friends getting together in a relaxed setting to play music. Personally, I think that applies to the Bellingham Festival of Music as a whole. It certainly looks and sounds that way.

Liftoff was achieved by means of Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to La scala di seta “The Silken Ladder.” As Dr. Edward Rutschman points out in his masterful program notes, the opera is a romantic comedy by 19th century standards. There were lots of musical chuckles in the Overture, led by oboist Joseph Robinson, perhaps the hardest-working retired musician ever. The strings were superb with the cellos and basses achieving orbital velocity.

Photo courtesy Bellingham Festival of Music.

Warp drive kicked in with the aforementioned Britten composition. A Prologue and Epilogue surround six poems from the English literary canon. Principal horn Brice Andrus delivered the end pieces with astonishing virtuosity. I didn’t know the horn could do things like that. The poems, ranging from Keats to Jonson to Blake, were delivered beautifully by tenor Richard Clement. His voice is not overpowering and doesn’t need to be in this setting. Sweet is the only word that adequately describes his voice and his control is exquisite. The Britten piece drew the first standing ovation of the night.

Photo courtesy Bellingham Festival of Music.

Following intermission, guest artist Jeremy Denk took everyone to the Delta Quadrant with his performance of Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto #1 in E flat Major. Passionate and joyful, Denk provided an interesting contrast in styles when compared to the equally talented, but rather restrained, Arnaldo Cohen who was featured in the first concert of the season. Denk is a showman and proved it with his body language. The crowd loved it and wouldn’t let him go until he had performed an encore.

Photo credit - J. Henry Fair

Adventuring is a fine thing, but it is always tempered by the desire to return home. Palmer brought us back to Planet Earth with another serenade, this one by Johannes Brahms, the Serenade #2 in A Major, Op.16. He used a modest ensemble of 25 players, all woodwinds and strings. This piece is owned by the woodwinds. Oboist Robinson delivered another stellar performance, ably assisted by clarinetist Laura Ardan.

The Bellingham Festival of Music never goes gently into that good night and Sunday’s final performance will put an emphatic exclamation point on this season. It is a complete concert version of Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. The orchestra will be joined by some celestial soloists and the magnificent Festival Chorus.

I suspect it’s already sold out, but you might be able to get on a waiting list by calling the box office at (360) 650-6146 or by e-mail: boxoffice@wwu.edu.

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