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Romero’s return ravishing
by Christopher Key

Guitarist Pepe Romero has been a guest artist at the Bellingham Festival of Music so many times, he probably gets mail here. There’s good reason why he gets invited back repeatedly. The festival audience loves him and he obviously loves them right back.

When most orchestras put music by Georges Bizet on the program, you can usually count on something from Carmen. The festival group is not most orchestras and we were treated to the French composer’s Symphony in C major. It’s a thoroughly delightful piece and the most astonishing thing about it was that Bizet wrote it when he was just 17. Move over, Mozart. There is youthful exuberance and wit just in the first movement and the finale is, in technical terms, a rip-snorter. The strings survived some truly furious passages in fine style. The orchestra deserved a standing ovation and didn’t get one, which leads me to wonder if the festival audiences are getting a bit jaded after all these years of excellence.

Celedonio Romero, patriarch of the Royal Family of the Guitar, would have been 100 years old this year. His Concierto de Málaga was written to honor the hometown of the Romero clan and dedicated to son Pepe. It was an obvious choice for tonight’s concert and is quintessentially Spanish. You can’t really compare Romero to other guitar virtuosos because he is in a class by himself. When I say his playing is breathtaking, there is nothing hyperbolic about it. I know because I forgot to breathe during some of the more intense passages. He can evoke more different voices from the instrument than anyone I’ve ever heard. That includes Segovia, Parkening and Isbin. The orchestra members gave Romero a resounding “Olé” at the end and there was no question about a standing ovation.


One of my favorite parts of the festival is the special visual effects demonstrated at intermission. Sunset over Bellingham Bay deserved a standing O and got it.

Romero returned to lead off the second half with another of Papa’s compositions. El Cortijo de Don Sancho (The Estate of Don Sancho) is a charming take on Don Quixote’s comrade-in-arms in the war on windmills. Cervantes’ classic novel was a favorite of Celedonio’s wife Angelita and the composition premiered at the festival in 1996. The six sections celebrate “Don” Sancho Panza in all his foolish glory. Quixote may be mocking his sidekick with the title, but the music captures pathos, nobility and the intrinsic dignity of the character. The orchestra tried out a new role as they provided rhythmic clapping to parts of the music. They’ve got rhythm. Another standing ovation ensued and the audience wouldn’t let Romero go until he had performed an encore.

Igor Stravinsky’s career began with ballets, such as The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev wanted to tempt the composer to return to his roots and asked him to arrange some eighteenth-century music for the modern orchestra. The result was the orchestral suite Pulcinella. Pulcinella is the commedia dell’arte character known to the British as Punch (Punch and Judy) and to the Russians as Petrushka. Stravinsky chose music attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. As Ed Rutschman explains in his outstanding program notes, Stravinsky didn’t just rearrange the music, he recomposed it. The orchestration is wildly innovative, which is expected from Stravinsky. His experimentation ranged from a repetitive phrase from the second violin to some theatrics from the trombone. It’s exactly the kind of challenging piece the festival orchestra revels in. This time they got the standing O.

There are still some tickets left for the final Three Sopranos concert at the Mount Baker Theatre on Sunday. The festival has sold out every concert except that one this season and I think it would be utterly cool if Bellingham could give the festival a wall-to-wall sellout. You can help by calling the MBT box office at (360) 734-6080 or by ordering tickets online.

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