Michael Palmer leads Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in the 2010 Bellingham Festival of Music (credit: Revolutionary Productions)

Bellingham Festival of Music celebrates 29 years of excellence under Michael Palmer as an era comes to a close

Peter M. Herford | 1 AUG 2022

If you ask Michael Palmer what he did on his summer holiday, he’d likely tell you that the last 29 Julys have been spent in Bellingham, Washington conducting a summer classical music festival.

Tanglewood is where the Boston Symphony hangs out for the summer. Ravinia is the summer home for the Chicago Symphony. Most other big cities have their equivalents. Many of these festivals have been around longer than the Bellingham festival of Music’s 29 years, but pulling off a music festival that can rival repertoire and performance with the big guys in a town of a tick more than 90,000? How did that happen?

“I spent time in the area at one point in my life”, says Michael Palmer, so when I had the idea of creating a festival from scratch, Bellingham struck me as the perfect place to start.”

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Without a resident classical music life or orchestra, how did he begin?

Michael Palmer came out of one of the top music schools in the USA. Not the well-known exclusives like Julliard or Curtis or Eastman. He graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Wilfred Conwell Bain was appointed Dean of the IU School of Music in 1947. He had a vision. The school’s Opera Department already had a national reputation and a theatre big enough to mount Aida. The Metropolitan Opera came to perform in Bloomington twice a year. In turn, opera singers from Indiana University routinely won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in New York. Dean Bain set about hiring the best faculty and added the best instrumentalists. He recruited active performers to come to Indiana, where they were given the opportunity to attract and teach the top talent in the country and still extend their traveling concert careers.

The late cellist Janos Starker was among them. Joshua Bell is a hometown boy and graduate of IU. Kurt Mazur, Musical Director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and the savior of that city when the old East German regime collapsed, came to work with and conduct the Indiana University Student Orchestra.

Michael Palmer, conductor. (credit: Bob O'Lary)

Michael Palmer, conductor. (credit: Bob O’Lary)

Michael Palmer came out of that heady music education. Upon graduating, Robert Shaw invited him to become Assistant then Associate Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This led to multiple appointments as guest conductor in Houston, and Denver. When he became Music Director of the New Haven Symphony, he had a chance to build his own orchestra. That earned him an invitation to perform in Carnegie Hall.

He founded The American Sinfonietta and spent a decade touring Europe with them.

“I adapted what I had learned to the idea for the Bellingham Festival. In mid-career I had conducted a variety of the best orchestras and built my repertoire. I knew some of the best musicians in the country and felt I could attract them with a summer festival of the most challenging music. And it worked.”

First chair and principals from symphonies and philharmonic ensembles in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Atlanta were tempted and came. Some have returned every summer to Bellingham. The high level of musical comfort and colleagues from across North America became as much of a draw as the scenery and welcoming climate.

In one case, Victor Constanzi, a violin prodigy soloist at 16 with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra who went on to an international career from his New York base, left it all behind and bought a house in the picture book community of Fairview next to Bellingham. He and the woman who was his “summer partner” are now permanent residents, and he has joined the Board of the Bellingham Festival to help keep the dream alive.

I asked him if he missed New York. “Not for a minute. We took our time and found the perfect house, surrounded by trees and green and quiet. I left New York noise behind.”

Richard Roberts beat his tenure as concertmaster in Bellingham with his day job: 37 years as concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony. Christina Smith has been principal flutist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 1991, where she worked with Robert Shaw. She has been featured on more than 40 recordings with the ASO. Only two years after she joined the ASO, she began working with Maestro Palmer in Bellingham and has continued to perform with the Festival every summer since.

All of these instrumentalists are long-time regulars making the annual July trek to Bellingham.

Michael Palmer and Christina Smith in rehearsal, 2022 Bellingham Festival of Music. (credit: Peter M. Herford)

Michael Palmer and Christina Smith in rehearsal, 2022 Bellingham Festival of Music. (credit: Peter M. Herford)

This summer was the final laudatory final season for the Maestro as Artistic Director, included all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos performed over three nights. It was a long-time collaboration reborn. In the 1990s, Maestro Palmer invited his friend and musical colleague, Garrick Ohlsson, then in his 40s, to play all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos in Bellingham. Those performances were released on disc as a 3-CD set.

Ohlsson’s career was launched in 1970 at age 22 when he became the only American pianist to win the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw. The New York Times took note:

Jury at Chopin Competition Selects Garrick Ohlsson
WARSAW, Sunday, October 25— Garrick Ohlsson, a six-foot four-inch New Yorker, was named early today as the winner of the Eighth International Chopin Piano Competition. He was the first American ever to win the coveted prize.

Ohlsson has traveled the world, playing with the world’s top orchestras and conductors ever since. Now 74, I asked Ohlsson why he kept returning to this small town.

“It’s the musicians and the rehearsals even more than the audience,” he said. “Many of us have known each other for decades and performed together. When you may perform with five different orchestras in a week on tour, there is a continuity here that is rare and deeply satisfying as a performer.”

Violinist Joshua Bell who still looks like the child prodigy he was, is now 55 with a world-class career. He is a Bloomington, Indiana native and IU product where he and Michael Palmer met and have collaborated frequently ever since, including performances at the Bellingham Festival. It is a level of musical symbiosis you rarely find in small-town USA.

Garrick Ohlsson and Michael Palmer in rehearsal, 2022 Bellingham Festival of Music. (credit: Peter M. Herford)

Garrick Ohlsson and Michael Palmer in rehearsal, 2022 Bellingham Festival of Music. (credit: Peter M. Herford)

When I suggested to friends in Seattle that there is an annual summer music festival in Bellingham where the repertoire and performers are at Tanglewood, Lucerne, or Salzburg levels, the question was always: “How does that happen?”

Begin with an idea and a vision. Then comes commitment, devotion, friendship, and volunteers. Add patience, determination, and diplomacy. That’s all it takes.

And money? Board member Ellen Pfeiffer resisted revealing the Festival budget but suggested it was in six figures. That may be the musical bargain of the century.

Pfeiffer, like her sixteen colleague Board members, is a volunteer. All the non-performers involved with the Bellingham Festival are volunteers. The musicians are lodged in local homes and, as a result, have made life-long friendships.

Pfeiffer is a Bellingham transplant from Boston, where she was a music critic for the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald in the days when newspapers large and small had music critics. She now uses her marketing and sales skills to promote the Festival. Other Board members are drawn from a Bellingham benefit: its retirement community of former captains of industry and commerce. They not only volunteer, but they also underwrite artist fees and operating costs.

Michael Palmer leads the Bellingham Festival Orchestra in a concert with pianist Horacio Gutiérrez in 2010. (source: Bellingham Festival of Music)

Michael Palmer leads the Bellingham Festival Orchestra in a concert with pianist Horacio Gutiérrez in 2010. (source: Bellingham Festival of Music)

The orchestra and soloists come for a fraction of their normal fees. Pianists like Ohlsson and his peers command north of $20,000 for a single performance. More recently, the Chinese “flying fingers” Lang Lang and Yuja Wang are rumored to have garnered up to $80,000. That is still a fraction of pop fees but gives perspective to the favor and respect that Artistic Director Michael Palmer commands.

Now what? The Bellingham Festival has turned itself into a year-round destination for traveling artists. They have established relationships with a growing number of competitions where young instrumentalists and singers compete for prizes that will launch their international careers. “Get ’em young,” and you may be able to afford their fees before they escalate out of sight.

George Li is now 27 and one of the young Chinese talents. His parents are Chinese, but George was born in Boston. At age nine, he made his orchestral debut in China and Carnegie Hall debut at 11.

Li played a solo recital in Bellingham after a second-prize finish at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Michael Palmer lured him to his Festival for a Concerto with the orchestra.

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The Festival is also being leveraged to provide a year-round classical music life in the city of 90,000.

“Would that there were more examples that go beyond a brief summer festival,” said Maestro Palmer. “When I toured Europe for a decade with the Sinfonietta that I founded, we performed in the major cities but also in Bellingham-sized towns where there was often a resident orchestra, even an opera company. There are audiences in Europe for great music and great performers and a tradition of subsidies from regional and national governments.”

I asked Ellen Pfeiffer about the future of the Bellingham Festival. She said: “You know audiences for classical music are declining. Programming the Festival is going to be a challenge to keep the people coming.”

Statistically, Pfeiffer is correct. 13% of Americans attended at least one concert a year in the early 80s. That is now down to 8%. Conversely, and perhaps perversely, 190,000 Americans are tuned to classical music radio stations every minute of every day. 11 million listen to classical music every week on the radio.

But radio has also paid off well for Maestro Palmer and the Bellingham Festival. Over the years, live recordings of Festival performances have been heard in well over four dozen episodes of the nationally syndicated radio program, Performance Today.

Grand Finale: Michael Palmer leads the Bellingham Festival Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, in the concluding concert of the 2022 Bellingham Festival of Music. (credit: David Palmer)

Grand Finale: Michael Palmer leads the Bellingham Festival Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, in the concluding concert of the 2022 Bellingham Festival of Music. (credit: David Palmer)

One Bellingham Festival era ended with a final performance of the Beethoven 9th Symphony this year. Maestro Palmer underlined his laudatory year by programming a series of “final symphonies,” including Brahms 4th and Shubert’s 9th. The audience gave all performances standing ovations, and the orchestra applauded the Maestro as well.

Retirement? Maestro Palmer does not know the word. He and his partner Michael Yip are hard at work planning a new classical music festival, The Hamptons Festival of Music, that will debut this September 9 to 11 in the Hamptons at the East End of New York’s Long Island. The new orchestra members are all signed, and the programs are finalized. But the Maestro has to take a detour on his way east: He is preparing to conduct Beethoven’s monumental Missa Solemnis in a pair of performances on August 27 and 29 in Amarillo, Texas.


Peter M. Herford

Seattle-based author Peter M. Herford has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China. Credits include as Producer of several episodes of 60 Minutes for the CBS television network (1972-73).