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Festival musicians strut their stuff
by John French

It was all about Music of the Americas, including a famous Englishman who was actually German and a French guy!

I love the chamber music concerts Bellingham Festival of Music does every year. It’s at the atrium of the Bellingham Cruise Terminal so there are no bad seats, the view is spectacular, Haggen’s Market Street Catering does a great job with food, the musicians are generally more relaxed, and the music is tremendous.


Sunday’s concert proved to be no exception. Our “Music of the Americas” began with South America in form of Heitor Villa-Lobos Preludio from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. This is my first hearing of this work, and although a very sturdy composition it had a bit of melancholy that did not seem to fit the general mood of this concert. However, it was expertly played as well as expertly arranged by festival cellist Steven Thomas.

Next up was the quintessential North American Samuel Barber with his Summer Music for Wind Quintet, Op. 31. Everything about this piece just works and to add a little flair to the occasion during the lighter dance-like moments, what should fill up the window of the atrium? A large two-masted schooner (which I believe was the Lady Washington up for her annual visit) and it just added that little extra wonderfulness to the afternoon of both sight and sound.

And then the unexpected. Oboist Keisuke Wakao appeared on stage to pay a musical tribute to his mentor of 35 years, retiring oboist Joesph Robinson. Wakao played Handel’s Largo from Xerxes (sometimes labeled Thanks be To Thee) in a wonderful tribute to Robinson. Let me just say that this is an extremely difficult piece to play if the instrument you play requires breathing to make it work (I play this a lot on the organ, but my breath is the “on” switch). Wakao made it appear seamless. Both he and Joe took a bow and it was a lovely tribute and a bonus for the audience.

We concluded the first half of the program with two pieces (again arranged by Thomas) by Astor Piazzolla. As a general statement for me, when I see a 20th century American (North or South) composer write something titled Oblivion, I cringe in my seat. However the twelve-tone train wreck I was expecting never happened. What I heard was a delightfully lyrical and rhythmically interesting piece. That was followed by the same composer’s Libertango and tango it did!

If there could possibly be anybody more American than Barber, it could only be Aaron Copland. And he was well represented with his Appalachian Spring Suite. The first surprise was that Michael Palmer came onstage to conduct the work replacing the otherwise engaged Whitney Reader. Surprise number two was Kimberly Russ, the pianist for the Seattle Symphony. The suite was just what the doctor ordered for such a beautiful day, especially the section that uses the Shaker hymn tune Simple Gifts. The visual surprise was the appearance of an ocean- going tug in the window just as the music came to the section that John Williams so expertly borrowed for the shark boat scene in the movie Jaws. I had an instant flashback to summer of 1975.

Our afternoon concluded with a Frenchman. Well, it was Bastille Day, after all. Darius Milhaud’s entry was the charming three-movement suite known as Scaramouche, again arranged by Thomas for clarinet, piano and cello. I have played the two-piano version of this piece many times and it is just plain dang fun and our trio with the wonderful Ms. Russ back on the piano had a roaring good time. All and all I cannot think of a more delightful way to have spent a Sunday afternoon.

The rest of the Bellingham Festival of Music concerts are sold out with the exception of the Three Sopranos concert on Sunday, July 21. For tickets to see that grand finale, call the Mount Baker Theatre box office at 360-734-6083 or order online.

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