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Denk’s for the memories

Festival opens 19th season
by Christopher Key

It’s always a memorable occasion when the Bellingham Festival of Music begins a new season because you know you’re in for two weeks of sheer musical heaven. It has become such an institution that many of us feel that summer doesn’t really start until the festival does. Even the weather seems to agree.

The international reputation that the festival has built is based on attracting some of the finest musicians from the nation’s top orchestras. Their virtuosity is such that the relatively small orchestra sounds like an aggregation twice its size. Maestro Michael Palmer, who has been with the festival since its inception, can be relied upon to assemble imaginative programs that open new musical doors for those of us lucky enough to be in the audience.

Tonight’s opening concert featured an all-Mozart menu and it was delicious from the appetizer to the dessert. It began, appropriately, with the Overture to La clemenza di Tito, KV 621. The clemency of Titus pays tribute to a merciful act by the Roman emperor and was composed to celebrate the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. It helped put Mozart on the map as a court musician to be reckoned with. It features what is known as a “Mannheim crescendo” as the orchestra gains momentum for the rousing conclusion. As always, I am grateful for the insightful program notes by Dr. Ed Rutschman that help me seem to know what I am talking about.

No Bellingham Festival of Music season would be complete without stellar guest artists and Jeremy Denk is a familiar name to local concertgoers from previous appearances. For my money, there is no other word to describe his piano artistry but “passionate.” This is evident both in his musicianship and the physicality he brings to a performance. With his face and his body language, he acts out every nuance of the music even when he is not actually playing.

Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, KV 467 gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate his acting chops along with his keyboard virtuosity and the audience was enthralled from beginning to end. The second movement, Andante, brought Mozart to the attention of a new generation when it was used in the score for the acclaimed 1967 film Elvira Madigan. As familiar as the theme is, Denk’s artistry is such that you discover the music all over again. Need I say that he received the first standing ovation of the season and had to take four bows before the audience would let him go? He got another mini-ovation when he joined the audience after intermission.

Even the intermissions at this festival are notable as the audience migrates outside to witness a spectacular sunset over Bellingham Bay from the plaza in front of Western Washington University’s wonderful Performing Arts Center.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major, KV 551, is known as “Jupiter” and how it came by that name can probably be attributed to an 18th century marketing guru who understood the importance of imagery. The imagery is apt since the symphony captures the King of the Gods in all of his power and amorous nature. The fourth movement provides a thoroughly aerobic workout for the strings that they brought off seemingly without breaking a sweat. Frankly, it left me limp and I was barely able to join the second standing ovation of the night.

The familiarity of the piece gave me a chance to watch the balletic interaction between conductor and orchestra that once again brought new insights into a work I have heard many times. What more can you ask from a musical performance?

We will no doubt discover that together as the season progresses. If you want to experience it first-hand rather than through my poor attempts to describe it, get your tickets immediately. Next on the bill is sensational young violinist Joshua Bell on Monday, July 9, at the Mount Baker Theatre. All tickets, regardless of venue, can be ordered through the WWU box office by calling (360) 650-6146. You can also order by e-mail: boxoffice@wwu.edu.

There is a spectacular season in store and you can find details at the Bellingham Festival of Music website.

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