For the past 29 years conductor Michael Palmer has been building up and conducting a summer classical music festival in Bellingham. The city’s ideal for such an endeavor; a picturesque small community of 90,000 with a university, facilities, and a built-in audience. But with its founder now retiring and moving on, a new chapter will begin next year after a new music director is identified and hired.
How did Palmer decide on Bellingham for his festival? “I spent time in the area at one point in my life,” says Palmer, so when I had the idea of creating a festival, Bellingham struck me as the perfect place to start.” The Festival quickly established itself as a highlight in the musical calendar each year.
The Festival and its board have been able to extend the reach of classical music to several year-round programs, such as concerts by the ferry terminal, chamber music coaching, masterclasses, children’s programming, outreach concerts to homeless people, and recitals by locals who have gone on to a professional career in music.
Palmer, a native of Indianapolis, graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, one of the nation’s best and largest music schools. Building on its notable reputation in opera, the music school set about hiring the best instrumental teachers and recruiting active performers to move to Indiana where they were given the opportunity to attract and teach the top talent in the country. Star cellist Janos Starker taught there for decades, and violinist Joshua Bell, a home town boy, is a product of the school.
Michael Palmer came out of that heady music education, taking up conducting after graduation. He was Associate Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, a busy guest conductor, and Music Director of the New Haven Symphony. 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,” Palmer explains. “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 came from top national orchestras, some returning every summer to Bellingham. Some have even built homes in the area.
At the beginning of the Festival, home was the historic Mount Baker Theatre downtown, a nostalgic delight but an acoustical mis-match. In the past decade, the Festival uses the WWU Performing Arts Center, a project made possible by the Festival.
This summer’s laudatory final season for Palmer (July 1-24) included all five Beethoven Piano Concertos over three nights. In the ‘90s Palmer invited his friend and distinguished musical colleague Garrick Ohlsson, then in his 40s, to play the five Beethoven concertos in Bellingham, which he repeated this season. Now 74, Ohlsson explained the special magnetism of Bellingham. “Many of us have known each other for decades and performed together. There is a continuity here that is rare and deeply satisfying as a performer.”
The Festival began with an idea, a vision, a bucolic place, and a dynamic leader. Next came patience, determination, and diplomacy. And money? The budget rings in at a modest half-million dollars, about half of it earned.
Most of the non-performers involved with the Bellingham Festival are unpaid volunteers. To save money, the musicians are housed in local homes and have made life-long friendships as a result. Some board members are musical sophisticates, and others are drawn from Bellingham’s retirement community, some of whom underwrite artist fees and operating costs. The orchestra and soloists come for reduced fees, and others are just starting their careers.
What might be the next act, after the Palmer era? The Festival has established relationships with music competitions where young instrumentalists and singers compete for the prizes that will launch their careers. “Get em young” and you may be able to afford their fees before they escalate out of sight.
The Festival is also being leveraged to provide a year-around classical music life in the city. A number of Board members have been instrumental in extending the reach of the one month festival to events throughout the year. These include concerts at the Bellingham Ferry Terminal, masterclasses, and partnering with a local non-profit that works with homeless, low-income, and foster children to provide instruments and lessons.
For the past eight years the Festival has sponsored a chamber residency that brings members of the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles to Bellingham for Master Classes, classroom outreach at area high schools, and concerts. They’ve had 2 years hiatus thanks to COVID but plan on a return in 2023.
This summer season of the Festival ended with a rousing final performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Palmer underlined his final year by programming a series of “final symphonies” including Brahms’ 4th and Schubert’s 9th.
So the festival Palmer created for his adopted city will continue. But what next for him? There are other festivals to work on, of course. Palmer and his partner Michael Yip run the Hamptons Festival of Music at the end of New York’s Long Island. Palmer also leads the Amarillo Virtuosi and is a professor at Georgia State University. But in Bellingham, thanks to Palmer’s many years of dedication, the festival he created will continue.