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Review: The Bellingham Festival of Music 2013

Review: The Bellingham Festival of Music
July 21, 2013

By Melinda Bargreen
Special to Classical KING FM

Concert audiences seem to love things that arrive in threes (e.g. “The Three Tenors”), so there was more than usual interest in the final program of the 2013 Bellingham Festival of Music. The concert, which concluded the festival’s 20th anniversary season, offered “the Three Sopranos,” a trio of highly regarded singers, performing arias and uniting for an Act III Finale from the Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier.

Capping a 16-day span of concerts that featured such soloists as pianist Garrick Ohlsson, cellist Joshua Roman, and guitarist Pepe Romero, the July 21 finale was led by artistic director and festival co-founder Michael Palmer. It was a big program, starting off with Haydn’s Symphony No. 87, and moving on to Verdi’s 1896 Te Deum before concluding with the “Three Sopranos” selections.

The low point of the evening was the Verdi, where the Festival Chorus (Vance George, director) was divided into two as required by the score, and suffered from serious problems in pitch, support, blend, and accuracy. The performance had more clams than an Ivar’s restaurant.

The “Three Sopranos” – mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, and sopranos Heidi Grant Murphy and Katie van Kooten – took over after intermission, with mixed results at first. Van Kooten all but lifted the lid right off the Mount Baker Theater with an opulent, artful performance of Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka.

Von Stade, whose Met debut occurred 43 years ago, gave a careful but rather wan performance of a movement from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’ete, whose low compass found her struggling for vocal support. Grant Murphy, a Bellingham native whose radiant voice has also graced the Met, chose an arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” whose range lay awkwardly over her “break,” though her high notes still had the beautiful clarity of her debut years.

The Rosenkavalier finale presents significant challenges to the orchestra as well as the singers, and Palmer led an enthusiastic, high-energy reading of selections from that richly orchestrated score. Here, too, was the best singing of the night. Von Stade’s voice, as Octavian, rose to all the high notes with a power and finesse that had been missing in the Berlioz; Grant Murphy sang Sophie’s lines with exquisite charm and ease, and van Kooten was a sumptuous, eloquent Marschallin. This finale surpassed all that had come before, and the concluding ovation was richly deserved.

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