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Festival celebrates retiring musician
by John French

It was that type of night at the Bellingham Festival of Music concert at the always too hot Performing Arts Center at Western Washington University. I have said it before and I will say it again: WWU has got to become more user-friendly for many of us to have a chance to enjoy concerts on that campus.

Tonight’s program, though, was simply tremendous from the opening notes all the way through to end of Schubert’s 3rd Symphony. And to begin the musical feast, we had Bela Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings, which he wrote shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The word Divertimento comes from the Italian word “divertire” (thank you Ed Rutchmann), which means to amuse. There is nothing very amusing about this work in three movements as the first movement simply drives you rhythmically along a highway.

I have always been a big fan of second movements as I guess I just want to hear “what’s next?” In this case it would be some of the spookiest music ever written topped off with a very somber finish. But have no fear, the lightning strikes again in the final movement and we are back off to the races. Maestro Michael Palmer and the strings were up to the task from the beginning.

And then it was time to say hello to violinist Ray Chen with his astoundingly agile performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor. This concerto is on the gold standard list of fiddle players and the reason is very simple: it is great music! Chen was more than a match for not only the expected virtuoso stuff but the absolutely beautiful and elongated lines of…wait for it…YES, the second movement. The intensity of eye contact between Maestro Palmer and Chen was electrifying for your humble reviewer, primarily because I have been on both sides of the baton and know what good communication feels like.

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After the stunning performance by both soloist and orchestra the standing ovation was immediate and justly deserved. Mr. Chen then proceeded to put a smile on all our faces with Paganini’s Caprice No. 21.

After intermission it was time for farewells. First to principal oboist Joseph Robinson who is retiring after 12 years as the festival’s primo oboe guy. For 27 years he was the New York Philharmonic’s principal oboe replacing the legendary Harold Gomberg. Robinson picked for his final solo performance Samuel Barber’s Canzonetta For Oboe and Strings. This was the last piece written by Barber was premiered by Gomberg in 1981. It was The last solo piece he played with orchestra. It is also interesting to note that both Robinson and Gomberg have chosen as their last orchestral piece to play Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

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Give Samuel Barber a set of strings and be prepared to come to your knees when you hear the results. Add a brilliantly complicated solo instrument on top (there is no other way to adequately describe an oboe) and you will be transported to places you have never dreamed about All of that happened to me tonight and it was delectable in every way. After the heartfelt ovation, there was a simple and beautiful presentation and thank you to Joseph Robinson by Michael Palmer on behalf of our entire community. Joe then politely returned to the orchestra for the final event, although he did actually sit in the wrong chair. I really do not feel he is planning to change instruments at this time.

We finished our evening with the 3rd Symphony by Franz Schubert, which he composed when he 18 and probably never heard played in his lifetime. Too bad. It is really wonderful and shows off the orchestra doing what this orchestra does best. And, oh yeah, in the third movement there is a wonderful duet between bassoon and oboe. Joe Robinson showed us all exactly why he was the oboe guru for the New York Philharmonic for 27 years.

Next on the Bellingham Festival of Music menu is local favorite Garrick Ohlsson in a concert featuring Bach, Mozart and Brahms. That happens on Saturday, July 13, at the WWU Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available at the WWU Box office (360) 650-6146. Order tickets via e-mail from the WWU Box Office.

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