I’ve been fascinated by classical music ever since I heard my first Mozart as a teen—Eine kleine Nachtmusik. I was blown away by the idea that one person could not only compose a moving piece for more than 20 instruments playing simultaneously, but that the universal language of music could be adored around the world, transcending differences in culture, race and religion with lasting popularity since the 1780s. That’s why I’m thankful to have Bellingham Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in my community. Now in their 44th season, BSO’s regular performances, world-renowned special guests, family-friendly options, and educational outreach makes classical music approachable to literally everyone.
I had the pleasure of speaking with BSO Executive Director Gail Ridenour and External Relations Manager Karen Bailor about their programs and the coming season.
Planning Your Classical Music Visit
BSO offers six or seven major performances each year. But each concert is just one piece of a full-weekend classical music experience. In addition to the main performance, each weekend (except for the BSO Plays Bach and Holiday Magic! concerts) includes the option of a pre-performance At-Home dinner, the family-friendly dress rehearsal, a pre-concert lecture and a post-concert reception.
Most BSO performances are on the Mainstage at the historic (and luxe) Mount Baker Theatre (MBT). I’ve had the pleasure of writing many articles about the history and shows of this beautifully-restored theater. I love the luxurious mix of design styles: French Baroque, High Gothic, Moroccan, Mediterranean, Spanish Gothic, Hindu, Babylonian, Aztec, Mayan, Orientalist, Italian Renaissance and Egyptian Revival.
Every visit feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience so it is a fitting venue to see a full orchestra in all its power performing lasting classical music treasures. Concert tickets start at just $15. At least half of the concerts sell out the 1500+ seat venue, so reserve your tickets in advance.
BSO continues to try to make classical music accessible by offering a number of discounts for youth. When kids under 12 are ready for a concert performance, their ticket is free with a ticketed adult. The Take-a-Teen Program also allows teenagers to attend main performances for free with a ticketed adult. Plus, the Student Rush Program offers college students with I.D. a ticket for just $8. To encourage students to attend multiple concerts, students can get a student subscription ticket for just $40 that includes all five main season performances (excluding the holiday performance).
At-Home Classical Music Dinners
Usually the night before the performance, BSO holds an intimate dinner for 10 to 20 guests where you’ll get the rare and special opportunity to meet the guest soloists. Dinner is usually followed by a solo performance. These dinners are fundraisers with scrumptious, expertly-prepared food and drink, like-minded classical music enthusiasts, and exclusive access to the music director and internationally-renowned visiting performers.
I’m told that at a recent dinner, guests learned about the performer’s Stradivarius. These dinners deepen the appreciation of the next day’s concert and guarantee a memorable VIP experience. You can reserve your dinner tickets in advance online or by calling the BSO office.
Relaxed, Family-Friendly Dress Rehearsals
BSO also offers opportunities that encourage attendance for everyone including families, people with disabilities and those without funds for a Mainstage ticket. “We are really trying to make it accessible for the next generation and bring the wonderful world of music to everyone,” notes Ridenour.
Classical Kids Program members can attend dress rehearsal the day before each performance for free with their parents. Families can be exposed to and appreciate world-class classical music performances without the worry of a social faux pas when their toddler needs to dance in the aisle or their 8-year-old can’t wait to ask a question about their new favorite instrument.
One hour before each performance (except for BSO Plays Bach and Holiday Magic!), Western Washington University (WWU) Assistant Professor and Director of Orchestral Studies Dr. Ryan Dudenbostel gives a free, lively interactive presentation of the history and analysis of the pieces that will be presented. He lets you know what to expect, what to listen for later that night and a deeper appreciation for the material.
The Classical Kids Program (annual $25 for the first family member, $5 for each additional child) runs concurrently, presenting similar information but designed for children under 12. The events include hands-on activities and snacks to make it a fun, positive experience.
Following most concerts, donors above a certain level are invited to attend a reception where you can meet the featured artist while enjoying food and wine in the Mount Baker Theatre’s Walton Theatre.
A Rich History
BSO was founded as Whatcom Symphony Orchestra in 1975 with a small group of local musicians. Over time, the organization has grown steadily, now employing two full-time and two part-time employees. The organization was rebranded, changing its name to Bellingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019 to align with other other orchestras of their level, often named after the city in which they perform.
Made up of more than 80 devoted core local musicians performing alongside world-renowned visiting soloists, BSO is truly a community-based orchestra. Although a few principal positions receive small stipends, most are volunteers who are also professional and semi-professional musicians, school teachers, private music instructors, and university professors that are passionate about their music. Some of the musicians are so supportive of the program that they donate their stipend.
BSO is a 501(c)3 nonprofit supported by ticket sales, community support through private donations, the City and County, and grants.
2019-2020 Season Highlights
Music director Yaniv Attar is part of the genius behind BSO. He is the First Prize Winner of the Duna Szimfonikus Conducting Competition Budapest, multiple recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Foundation Award, and the 2009 Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation Award. Attar is the Music Director of the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra, the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra, and Artistic Partner with Northwest Sinfonietta. I also had the pleasure of seeing him be awarded a 2018 Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award.
BSO is known for bringing in some of the best guest solo artists from around the world. That feat is accomplished by a group effort and long-term planning by Ridenour, Attar and BSO musicians. Many soloists return year after year.
Music in Motion Featuring Jon Kimura Parker on Piano
September 29, 2019
The season opens officially with music that moves us. Internationally-renowned pianist Jon Kimura Parker will help open the season with the lively Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (1870). “A true Canadian ambassador of music, Mr. Parker has given command performances for Queen Elizabeth II, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Prime Ministers of Canada and Japan. He is an Officer of The Order of Canada, his country’s highest civilian honor. In the past two years he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto, and awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of British Columbia.” Parker is also Professor of Piano at The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and Artistic Director of the Honens International Piano Competition.
You may recognize the piece as the opening of one of your favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons. It appeared in the 1943 animated short film, A Corny Concerto. As a child, Bugs Bunny cartoons were among my first introduction to classical music.
The evening continues with “Ballet Suite” from Jules Massenet’s opera, Le Cid (1885). The “Suite” is made up of seven parts, each celebrating a regional dance form native to Spain.
The evening will close with Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2. It is a tribute to Danzón style of dance, which originated in Cuba and continues to thrive in Mexico.
Borodin Meets Beethoven Featuring Amit Peled on Cello
November 17, 2019
The evening begins with Alexander Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 (1877). Interestingly, Borodin is one of a group of 19th-century composers known as “The Mighty Handful,” dedicated to producing uniquely Russian classical music. He was also a professor of chemistry so his works were composed over several years between laboratory work.
Then Israeli cellist Amit Peled returns to Bellingham to join the orchestra for French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 (1872). Saint-Saëns was just 37 when he composed this piece, considered by many as the greatest of all cello concertos.
At 6’5” tall, Peled started as a basketball player. He now lives in Baltimore Maryland and performs on an 1800 Thomas Dodd cello, that was given to him by the legendary Bernard Greenhouse. In the past he played legend Pablo Casals’ cello.
The evening closes with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Commissioned by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the piece tells the story of Count Egmont who led the local resistance following the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands in the 16th century. Although Spanish forces were expelled and freedom restored, Egmont was arrested and executed. The work celebrates the successful resistance.
Holiday Magic! With a Live Performance of The Snowman
December 8, 2019
This performance is returning for its 4th year and is scheduled at an earlier time, 3 p.m. so the kids can still get to bed on time. It is purposely very family-friendly to help kick off the holiday season with the whole family. The BSO will play live during the screening of the 1982 short film The Snowman. You’ll hear holiday classics like Silent Night and can join in a fun, family sing-along with local children’s choirs.
At intermission there will be hot cocoa for the children. Get your tickets early for this one as it sells out.
Finlandia Featuring Giora Schmidt on Violin
February 9, 2020
The evening will open with violinist Giora Schmidt joining the orchestra for Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra (1881). Schmidt began playing violin at the age of 4, born in Philadelphia to professional musician parents from Isreal. He studied at Juilliard as a student of Itzhak Perlman where he later became a faculty member. He is now Assistant Professor of Violin at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music. He plays a c. 1830 violin by Giuseppe Rocca.
Schmidt will continue the evening with Soviet Kabalevsky’s charming and humorous Violin Concerto, composed between 1948 and 1951.
Then you’ll hear the 22-minute-long movement, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 followed by Finlandia. Composed in 1899 and 1900, Finlandia depicts the struggles of the Finnish people in the face of oppression from the Russian empire. The piece was considered to be part of the protests of the time so you’ll hear Finland’s fighting spirit in the work. The Hymn of Finlandia remains one of the most important national works in Finland to date.
Between Worlds: Harmony from Discord Featuring Daniel Bolshoy on Guitar and Jessica Choe on Piano
March 15, 2020
This series revives music created by composers who lived under Nazi oppression and were killed in the Holocaust. BSO is the only orchestra in the nation that does this series. Many of the pieces from that time were lost forever, but this series shares some of the pieces that remain. “We are bringing new life to this music and finding the beauty, and the inspiration and the power in something that was created under these dire circumstances,” explains Ridenour.
Between Worlds celebrates works by two composers who fled Europe and immigrated to the U.S. and juxtaposes them with pieces by two composers who were lost to the camps. All four works are energetic and delightful despite the circumstances under which they were written.
The evening will open with Theme and Variations composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Born in Austria, Korngold was a child prodigy who went on to be known as the creator of the symphonic film score in Hollywood. If you’re an old movie buff, you may have heard his work in Captain Blood (1935) or The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) for which he won his second Oscar.
Next Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Concerto No. 1 will be performed by Daniel Bolshoy on guitar. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s life as a film composer in America is the subject of the 2019 film The Maestro. By the 1930s, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s works were banned from radio and public performance due to his Jewish heritage.
Bolshoy is the head of the guitar division at University of British Columbia School of Music and is head of the guitar department at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music. He’s performed across Canada and around the world.
The third piece of the evening is Study for Strings by Czech composer Pavel Haas. A 1944 Nazi propaganda film used a video-recording of Haas’ powerful and energetic Study of Strings to falsely depict the Terezín concentration camp as an idyllic haven for the arts.
The evening will close with Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 performed by Jessica Choe. Schulhoff was born a German Jew in Prague, his great-uncle a noted pianist and composer, Julius Schulhoff. His teachers included Antonín Dvořák and Claude Debussy.
Jessica Choe is a prize-winning Korean American pianist who began playing at the age of three, immigrating to the U.S. at the age of nine. She has since won numerous awards including the Beethoven Society of American Piano and the Bartok-Kabelevsky International Piano Competitions.
“As a musician as I’ve played some of these works. It is amazing how beautiful and joyful this music is. I’ve been to some of the concentration camps and the feeling there was so oppressive and then to listen to this music that came out of it,” adds Ridenour. “The human spirit just soars over it all and that is a powerful thing featured in the music.”
Brahms’ Violin Featuring Chee-Yun on Violin
May 21, 2020
The night opens with violinist Chee-Yun joining the orchestra for Brahms’ only Violin Concerto. “Composed in 1878 for his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms’ Violin Concerto is known as one of the four great German violin concertos and is often compared to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in the same key. Brahms’ compositions are heavily influenced by Hungarian folk melodies, which become particularly apparent in the final movement.”
Chee-Yun was born in Seoul, Korea and began performing publicly at the age of eight. By age thirteen she was on stage in the U.S. with the New York Philharmonic.
There are theories that her violin, made in 1669 by Francesco Ruggieri, spent 200 years buried alongside its previous owner accounting for its impeccable condition today.
The season will close with Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, which was made into a ballet called Brahms–Schoenberg Quartet by George Balanchine. Originally composed as a quartet, Schoenberg’s orchestration highlights the strings and incorporates additional percussive elements.
Classical on Tap and Classical Around Town has brought quartets and quintets to local breweries and throughout the county for free. At these events you can expect a chance to win concert tickets, learn more about the music, play some trivia and participate in a Q and A with the musicians. Check their website as summer approaches.
BSO’s mission includes sharing classical music with all of Whatcom County. To achieve that goal, BSO has a number of additional programs designed to reach all walks of life. Their multi-pronged Educational Youth Engagement Program brings music performance into public, private and home school communities throughout the county reaching students of all ages. Their Music in the Schools and Beethoven in the Schools Programs focus on elementary-school aged students, bringing free performances to all 32 Whatcom County elementary schools.. Their smaller Baroque Chamber Orchestra also performs at various locations in Whatcom County as a way to make the music accessible to all.
In addition, a partnership between Mount Baker Theatre’s Wade Bennett King Educational Series and BSO’s educational programs will present on March 23, Storytelling with the Symphony featuring The Story of Ferdinand the Bull. Based on the popular children’s book, the concert will include narration written by the book author, Munro Leaf as well as music from Bizet’s Carmen. The book was among my favorites as a child and was also popular with my own children, now in high school.
The book was originally published in 1938 and has since been translated to over 60 languages. The orchestra will finish the concert with fun selections from narrative-style compositions. This concert will be attended by multiple schools at MBT. Anyone can attend along with the kids for just $6.
I love that there are so many free and affordable opportunities to celebrate classical music and world-class performers in the Bellingham community. Be sure to plan your trip and get your tickets in advance.