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Massively Mozart

Fabulous festival finale
by Christopher Key

How good is the Bellingham Festival of Music Orchestra? Sensational Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas had some thoughts about that at his recital on Thursday. He said they are as good as the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Not bad company to be in. They lived up to that rep in the final concert of the season on Saturday.

Maestro Michael Palmer creates magic with his virtuosic crew by making about 40 musicians sound like twice that number. He has been known to push the tempi on occasion, perhaps just to see if the musicians can keep up. No sweat. They ripped through Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, KV 550, with complete aplomb. The woodwinds got to show off a bit in the second movement and the strings were stunning throughout.

Not to give that performance short shrift, but shock and awe awaited after intermission and I need to devote some serious space to that. I have nothing to add to Señor Villegas’ assessment of the orchestra, but the Festival Chorus is nothing to sneeze at. This year saw the inauguration of the Choral Arts Institute in conjunction with Western Washington University’s College of Fine and Performing Arts and an already superb chorus went stratospheric. Grammy Award winner and Chorus Director Emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony Vance George put the singers through an intense week of study for the performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor, KV 427 (417a), and the results were mind-boggling. Anyone whose hair didn’t stand on end at the opening chords of the “Gloria” and “Sanctus” needs to have their vital signs checked.

Joining the orchestra and chorus were four outstanding soloists. Soprano Maria Valdes is from Georgia and her voice is as rich as pecan pie. That richness encompasses her entire range and seems to be effortless.

Mezzo Tamara Mumford is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and you have to suspect that her name will be quite familiar before long. When she and Valdes joined for a duet, it was Goose Bump City.

The gentlemen didn’t get much solo time, but tenor Paul Johnson displayed a lovely voice when he joined trios and quartets. I wish we could have heard more from this Kansas native who has performed often in the Northwest.

Baritone Charles Robert Stephens is a local favorite, having performed before with the festival and with the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra. We didn’t get to hear much from him either, but I have sung (so to speak) his praises before and I’m running out of adjectives.

The performance brought the sold-out house to its feet for a roaring, howling ovation that lasted so long I lost count of how many bows the performers had to take. It was obvious that the audience didn’t want to let go of this festival season and that should verify that the superlatives I have been spouting the past two weeks are not just hyperbole.

The festival has a well-deserved reputation for not going gently into that good night and the Mass in C minor put a very emphatic exclamation point at the end of a spectacular season. As festival board chair John Binns noted, three of the concerts, including this one, sold out. Attendance at the others was well over 90 percent. He also pointed out that this whole acclaimed extravaganza is put on entirely by the board and other dedicated volunteers. For a festival whose future was somewhat shaky a few years back, this is an accomplishment that is nothing short of inspirational.

This festival has put Bellingham on the international classical music map in no uncertain terms and Señor Villegas’ remarks serve to underscore that. Do I need to say that you should think about reserving your tickets for next season right now? Keep an eye on the festival website so that you won’t miss out on the 20th Anniversary Season.

I’m now going to apply some lotion to a pair of hands that are sore from clapping and put the thesaurus away until next season.

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