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Classical music: Bellingham festival celebrating its visionary founder

Michael Palmer saw potential for something special in the Pacific Northwest, decided small Washington state city had right stuff for a classical festival

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Bellingham Music Festival

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When: July 1 to July 24

Evening concerts at 7 pm; Chamber Music by the Bay matinee on Sunday, July 10 at 4 pm

Where: Western Washington University Performing Arts Center and the Atrium at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal

More info, tickets:

The Bellingham Music Festival returns with renewed splendor in July, another Vancouver-adjacent classical event getting back into the swing of things after two years of uncertainty and cancellations.

This 29th festival will celebrate the lasting achievement of founder Michael Palmer. Palmer started out as an assistant conductor at the Atlanta Symphony (when he had just turned 21 years old), has conducted all over the place and is currently Charles Thomas Wurm Distinguished Professor of Orchestral Studies at Georgia State University.

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Palmer was a visionary who saw potential for something special here in the Pacific Northwest and decided Bellingham had the right stuff for a classical festival.

Was ever right! Back when the festival got started, Bellingham was beginning a multi-decade metamorphosis. There were at least three promising pre-conditions for summertime classical music: The town had a ready-made cohort of students at Western Washington University plus attractive spaces for music on campus; more retirees were moving into the area, folks who found the place both attractive and relatively affordable; add in a core local audience, including Vancouverites prepared to venture south of the border, and voila! The festival was on its way.

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This 2022 Michael Palmer Laudatory Season runs to some nine events, the first of which is a chamber program: Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Hob. III:1, The chase; Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 458, The Hunt; Jörg Widmann’s String Quartet No. 3, Jagdquartett (2003); and Brahms’ String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 67, all performed by regular festival headliner the Calidore String Quartet.

Founded at Los Angeles’s Colburn School in 2010, the Calidore has recently joined the faculty of the University of Delaware School of Music and is known for commitment to classic and contemporary repertoire. The three classic works are repertoire staples. Jörg Widmann’s extraordinary Hunt Quartet is one of the most impressive string quartets written this century. Widmann envelopes and embroiders a fragment from Robert Schumann’s Papillons with new music techniques and a healthy dollop of theatre. No spoilers here, but if ever a piece of chamber music elicits strong responses, this is it.

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Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will play all five Beethoven concerti at the Bellingham Music Festival.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will play all five Beethoven concerti at the Bellingham Music Festival. Photo by Courtesy, Opus3 management

There’s another chamber music concert, a matinee and reception on Sunday, July 10 in the Bellingham Cruise Terminal Atrium, then the rest of the events are performed by a festival orchestra conducted by Maestro Palmer, with Beethoven works on all but one program.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw is featured on Saturday, July 2 in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy; there’s a performance of Beethoven’s triple concerto on Friday, July 8; soprano Maria Valdes sings Strauss on Tuesday, July 12; and the festival winds up with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on Sunday, July 24.

There’s a mini-festival within the festival from July 15-17, with Garrick Ohlsson playing all five Beethoven piano concertos. Ohlsson has a strong Vancouver following, and hearing him in Beethoven’s great concerto sequence will be a fascinating deep dive into how the Viennese master transformed the concerto genre.

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Although crossing the border still requires a modicum of planning, the festival experience is well worth it. The 650-seat main hall at WWU is intimate and acoustically satisfying; the campus, with its gardens and contemporary sculpture, is lovely on a long summer evening; and free parking is easy to find.

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