A virtual delight: Whidbey Island Music Festival 2020

— Created August 19, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

One might compare it to a beloved children’s book about perseverance: The Whidbey Island Music Festival is the little concert series that could, despite a worldwide pandemic and event cancellations too numerous to remember.

The festival, now in its 15th year of celebrating the music of the past four centuries, kicks off a unique series of three virtual concert “opening nights” starting Friday and running through Sunday, all available for music lovers to enjoy from the comfort of their own homes.

While this weekend’s performances will each feature a live Zoom chat with musicians at 7 p.m. before the 7:30 p.m. concerts, all the programs will be available to watch through Sept. 30. A festival pass for all performances is available for purchase at www.whidbeyislandmusicfestival.org, as are tickets for individual concerts and information on all the performers.

Founder and organizer of WIMF, Tekla Cunningham, said this year presents a unique experience she hopes festival lovers will embrace.

“This year there are three online-only programs and two big anniversaries to celebrate,” she said. “The first is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and the second is the 15th anniversary of the Whidbey Island Music Festival.”

As so many are doing these days, Cunningham adjusted how the festival would proceed. Instead of gathering small groups of musicians at various venues on Whidbey Island, participating musicians recorded their performances.

 “This is uncharted territory, but I’m very hopeful that Whidbey audiences will embrace the convenience of watching these programs from the comfort and safety of home at a time when large in-person gatherings are not possible,” Cunningham said. “The concerts will be available online until the end of September, so there is lots of flexibility built into the experience. 

“The live chats are a chance for the audience to connect with performers and will function as a pre-concert chat,” she continued. “2020 has been the year of Zoom and I think most people are now fairly comfortable with this new way of connecting.”

If the experience is different for audiences, it is also different for musicians, who are used to performing in front of said audiences. This year has been hard on those in the performing arts, so Cunningham is happy to be able to provide this online venue for them.

“Performing without an audience is certainly a different experience, but in doing video recordings of performances, the musicians become more focused on communicating with each other,” she said. “The musicians were all so thrilled to have a chance to play together, and to get to ‘make something.’ Most musicians have seen their concert calendar erased from March 2020 to at least the end of 2021. It’s a very challenging moment for artists who make their living performing. For musicians, it’s extremely meaningful and validating to have this opportunity to create a shared experience to bring light and joy to the community.”

Selecting these centuries-old compositions and playing them on period instruments is part of what has made WIMF unique over the past several years. The pandemic made for even more challenges when it came to putting this year’s festival together.

“Logistics are certainly daunting during this time,” said Cunningham. “Keeping groups very small, working with venue, safety and spacing requirements were all new challenges. Adding in the video element adds a new layer of complexity. It has been so inspiring to see musicians meet the challenges of this with so much ingenuity and creativity, and with such devotion to their craft.” 

For those familiar with the Whidbey Island Music Festival, Cunningham said she feels this year’s series of concerts will not disappoint and has pulled together both familiar and new elements to make these performances special.

“The first program is a selection of Beethoven Sonatas for piano forte and cello,” she described. “Eric Zivian and Tanya Tomkins live in Berkeley, Calif., and have turned their living room into a concert hall. They created wonderful videos of their performances for this program. Rita Dove, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, sent a video recording of her poem ‘Ludwig van Beethoven Returns to Vienna’ from her home in Virginia. 

“The second program is all about an almost unknown French composer named Zoé de la Ruë, who was the French Age of Enlightenment’s reigning harp virtuosa,” Cunningham continued. “Tess Altiveros sings a set of Zoé’s songs, which are every bit as tuneful as Schubert’s, and I’m playing the violin in the wonderfully dramatic duos with harpist Maxine Eilander, as well as a few opera arias by Mozart and Gluck arranged for violin and harp, in which I get to ‘sing’ the melody line on the violin.”

The third and final program, which debuts Sunday evening, also brings high-caliber performances.  

“The final program combines Beethoven’s Scottish songs with sets of traditional Scottish fiddle tunes played by Scottish fiddle champion Brandon Vance, Grammy winner Stephen Stubbs and multi-instrumentalist Henry Lebedinsky,” said Cunningham. “The contrast between Beethoven’s refined imaginings of traditional melodies and the crackling energy of the traditional fiddle tunes is pure delight!” 

While the festival may be anything but “traditional” this year, Cunningham hopes audiences will still be inspired to “attend.” Pre-concert Zoom chats will take place before this weekend’s performances, but all concerts will be available to enjoy through the end of September. Details are available at whidbeyislandmusicfestival.org.

“This year’s festival is a chance to take a break and recharge with the beauty, joy and connection of music,” she said. “Music has a unique power to inspire and delight. From the virtuosity and passion of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and cello, the elegance and joie de vivre of Zoé de la Ruë’s chamber music and the sheer foot-stomping joy of traditional Scottish Fiddle tunes, this year’s Whidbey Island Music Festival has something for everyone!”