At A Critical Transition, Northwest Music Fest Delivers A Concert Blitz

Marcello Lehninger leading the Bellingham Festival Orchestra (Photo by Zachary Person)

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Pacific Northwest fans of orchestral music, and especially those keen to sample the skills and artistry of a heady sequence of guest conductors, were offered quite the selection of concerts at this July’s Bellingham Festival of Music.

The festival has been around since 1993 under visionary conductor Michael Palmer, who began his career as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1967 and went on to assignments in Wichita, New Haven, Houston, and Denver. He convinced like-minded locals that there was potential for a Bellingham summer classical-music event in July (about the only time when the region can really anticipate dry weather). He rightly foresaw that musicians from all over could be enticed to play in such attractive surroundings.

A city of around 100,000, Bellingham wasn’t always an especially attractive place; it was a fairly typical Pacific Northwest industrial town for more than a century. Georgia Pacific shut down its occasionally malodorous mill in 2007, whereupon the city’s re-invention accelerated.

Bellingham has real advantages beyond its scenery and mild (if moist) climate. Real-estate prices are on the low side for the region; there’s developed infrastructure; and the presence of Western Washington University, on a steep hill just south of the central business district, gives the community intellectual cachet. Because the city lies more or less equidistant from the far bigger population centers of Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle, each about 90 minutes away, there is a plentiful supply of out-of-town visitors.

The Bellingham Festival has experienced growing pains, including some serious financial worries and organizational issues back in 2007. Then came Covid, which forced a virtual festival in 2020 and a reduced live event in 2021. At the end of the 2022 season, Palmer decided to step down as artistic director and conductor, moving into the role of conductor laureate. If not quite back to normal, Festival 2022 provided a grand celebration of Palmer and his legacy, including a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and a proclamation from a grateful municipality.

The campus of Western Washington University, site of the Bellingham Festival Orchestra (Photo by Rhys Logan)

How to move on? Growing pains are one thing; transitions are a whole other proposition. An administrative decision with far-reaching implications was to bring in a new executive director this January: Erika Block, a Bellingham-based clarinetist with degrees from Boston University and a festival board member since 2017. Her job description includes coordinating with the orchestra and augmenting the administrative work of the all-volunteer board of directors.

The reality, according to board member and festival enthusiast Ellen Pfeifer, is so much more. According to the festival’s website, “Pfeifer is a recent refugee from Boston, MA. For almost thirty years she wrote music (and theater) criticism for one or the other of Boston’s daily newspapers.” Pfeifer moved on to become public relations manager and then senior communications specialist at the New England Conservatory. She admires — and to a certain extent is astounded by — Block’s energy. Beyond her administrative tasks, Block still plays in the orchestra and in chamber-music ensembles. Her can-do attitude even ran to physically setting up a beer garden on an unexpectedly windy evening.

With a new administrative model in place, the strategy for Festival 2023 was pragmatic, persuasive, and ready to roll: Invite a quintet of young and youngish conductors to show their stuff, hoping that artists new to the area would excite and energize the Festival. An ambitious series of five full orchestral concert programs in just 18 days was launched July 1.

The invited conductors came up with programs. Some were fairly safe and familiar; others included new works as starters; all showcased carefully thought-out programming strategies, including one that celebrated recent trends in programming diversity.

Executive director Erika Block (Photo by Jason Deetz)

The festival launched with a strong offering conducted by Ward Stare, music director of the Rochester Philharmonic from 2014 to 2021. Stare opened with a classic, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, then went on to Samuel Barber’s luminous setting of prose texts by James Agee, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with soprano Andriana Chuchman, and concluded with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

Block and Pfeifer both admitted that the Barber and Mahler works may have been challenging for some festival regulars. In the event, Stare’s assured platform chat contributed to the success of his test drive of the orchestra, and his chosen works showed he is prepared to think big in his vision of what festival fare can encompass.

Marcelo Lehninger, music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony since 2016, tucked in a token contemporary curtain raiser, Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s Hymn-2001, before getting down to standard repertoire.

Festival 2023’s parade of guest soloists produced what Pfeifer called “visceral excitement” in the house; Lehninger teamed with soloist Blake Pouliot in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto before ending his program with Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony.

A strong part of the festival’s appeal is its main venue, the Performing Arts Center at Western Washington University, a simple but acoustically superior space for music, with just 640 seats. Dropping in after several years’ absence for a rehearsal of Dvořák’s Eighth, I was instantly reminded of the intimacy of the space and the immediacy of the hall’s sound. With that, however, come a few challenges of scale and balance.

Next up was Ken Lam, music director of the Charleston Symphony from 2015 to 2022. His programming strategy was similar to Lehninger’s: Cindy McTee’s Neo-classical Circuits from 1990 to start, then an old blockbuster, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with soloist Conrad Tao, followed by Shostakovich’s cheeky, bitter Ninth Symphony.

Conner Gray Covington conducted a diverse program. (Photo by Jenny Chou)

Of course, it wouldn’t be a music festival if absolutely everything went according to plan. Joshua Weilerstein, late of the Chamber Orchestra of Lausaunne, had planned to conduct Klein, Barber, and Beethoven; alas, he came down with Covid and had to drop out. Tito Muñoz, music director of the Phoenix Symphony, was hastily engaged. He retained from Weilersten’s program Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Barber’s Violin Concerto, with Alexi Kenney as soloist, but substituted Elgar’s tried and true Serenade for Strings for Gideon Klein’s Partita for String Orchestra.

I chose to attend the last night of the Festival in part because of Conner Gray Covington‘s especially imaginative program. Covington, associate conductor of the Utah Symphony from 2018 to 2022, offered two relatively unfamiliar works in the first half. Anna Clyne’s The Midnight Hour, a provocative and energetic post-modern mishmash started things off; Florence Price’s Piano Concerto was a solid crowd pleaser, given a lively, committed performance by Michelle Cann, whose enthusiasm for the work proved infectious.

For his second half, Covington risked two subtle but exacting masterworks: Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the full ballet version of Ravel’s Mother Goose; marvelous music, but a strategy that came with risks. While the results weren’t always pristine, Covington demonstrated skill, taste, and vision.