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Festival cruises into Fairhaven
by Christopher Key

If the musicians at the Bellingham Festival of Music are the best of the best, then the ones who play in the Chamber Music Concert are the best of the best of the best. There’s no place to hide in a chamber group, as someone has noted before. The chamber concert seems to have found a home at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal and it’s an enchanting venue. Acoustically, it’s surprisingly good and the view from the atrium occasionally makes it hard to focus on the music. The musicians emphatically dispose of that last problem.

Steven Thomas, Principal Cellist for the New Haven Symphony and Orchestra New England, was chosen to host the performance. His dry, self-deprecating wit and obvious knowledge of the music earned him laughter and applause from the audience. It was gratifying to see the sold-out concert, but would have been even more gratifying had there been a few people under 40.

The first work of the day was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 16. In his introductory remarks, Thomas read from a review of an early performance featuring Beethoven himself at the keyboard. It seems that during the Rondo, the composer started improvising, which made him and the audience happy. The article, hilariously understated, notes that the other musicians were “…less than pleased.”

Guest artist for the performance was Western Washington University’s own Jeffrey Gilliam, a local favorite who has performed with the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra on several occasions. His touch on the keys is masterful as is his attention to dynamics.

In addition to cellist Thomas, the other players were Richard Roberts on violin and Jim Van Valkenburg on viola. Roberts is Principal Concertmaster for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; Van Valkenburg is Assistant Principal Viola for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

As might be expected from Mr. B, the work showcases the piano. The first movement is marked Grave – Allegro, ma non troppo. It galloped along right pert, as my grandmother used to say. Thomas dedicated the second movement, Andante cantabile, to Elizabeth Moore and Chris Morgan, two longtime patrons of the festival who passed away recently. The Rondo provided a spirited finish to the concerto and Gilliam threw in a brief improv as the rest of the musicians mugged appropriately.

Following the intermission, the personnel changed slightly. Victor Costanzi, an acclaimed recording artist and Artistic Director of the Vetta Chamber Series, came in on second violin. Marvin Warshaw, principal cellist for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, added a second viola.

The work was Johannes Brahms’ Quintet No. 2 for Strings in G Major, Op. 111. As Thomas noted in his introduction, it may have started out to be a symphony. Certainly the first movement leans that way, with all five musicians getting not the slightest rest. Brahms believed in giving very detailed instructions as the first movement is marked Allegro non troppo, ma con brio. The only people who don’t find that confusing are musicians.

This work is something of a showcase for the cello and Thomas was wiping his brow by the time they brought it home. They did so in grand style. Standing ovations seem to be de rigueur at the Bellingham Festival of Music and the chamber concert was no exception. The paying customers were treated to hors d’ouevres and wine after the concert while I came home to write the review.

That’s OK. I get a brief break from this recent avalanche of reviews. Next, the festival moves back to the WWU Performing Arts Center for a concert featuring guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas and harpist Rita Costanzi on Wednesday, July 18. If any tickets are available, you’ll find them at (360) 650-6146. Order tickets via e-mail from the WWU Box Office: boxoffice@wwu.edu. For information on upcoming concerts, see the Bellingham Festival of Music website.

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