Whidbey Island Music Festival: Emerging from pandemic with fresh perspective

— Created June 23, 2021 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

As long and as hard as the pandemic has been, it has provided artists with time to delve into their creativity in new and imaginative ways.

So, while the Whidbey Island Music Festival is still all about the classics, audiences may find new depth and new experiences await them when they attend.

This year’s festival consists of three different concert programs – six performances – spread out over three months. The first concert performance Saturday is sold out, but don’t despair, a second performance will take place Sunday at 2 p.m. at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. The program entitled “Between Heaven and Earth: A Year with Brahms,” pairs WIMF founder and violinist Tekla Cunningham with Whidbey Island pianist Sheila Weidendorf.

Concert two, “An die Musik: A Schubertiade,” will be performed outdoors at Cultus Bay Gardens in Clinton at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 17 and again at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 18, with a garden concert in Freeland. These performances feature soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah, Cunningham on violin, harpist Maxine Eilander and guitarist Stephen Stubbs as they explore the songs of Franz Schubert, Niccolò Paganini and Zoe de la Ruë.

The trio of concerts concludes Saturday, Aug. 28 at the garden of Shirley Collins in Langley and will be repeated Sunday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m., as part of the Summer Nights Series at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. Organist Henry Lebedinsky joins Reutter-Harrah and Cunningham for a program of Bach arias and chamber music.

“We are doing things differently this year,” explained Cunningham. “Usually all the concerts are indoors at St. Augustine’s-in-the-Woods, but as we are still emerging from the pandemic and the church is not yet available, almost everything is being done outdoors. We thought some garden concerts would be a really beautiful, nice way to ease back into gathering.”

This weekend’s performances by Cunningham and Weidendorf are very special to her, Cunningham described. The two have been acquaintances and have played together before, but the pandemic enabled them to dig deep into the compositions – both musically and emotionally.

“Sheila and I were “pod” partners – she and I assessed what each other was doing and were able to make a music bubble,” she said. “For the last 17 months we’ve been meeting every week, diving really deeply into knowing [the compositions]. It’s been a real journey of discovery. I’ve never had this kind of musical experience, playing the same thing this much. It felt like a real lifeline, to be able to make music with somebody. It gave us a spaciousness and freedom that we couldn’t get elsewhere. To have this bubble where we could explore was very special.”

Weidendorf said she realized not long into the pandemic that she needed a break from constant public performances and enjoyed the opportunity playing with Cunningham presented.

“First of all, understand that in our ‘regular’ performance life, we are constantly learning, rehearsing, performing new repertoire,” shared Weidendorf. “It’s non-stop — which has its own nature of challenge and exhilaration, to be sure! But it’s rare to have the opportunity to just – be – with and in the music for an extended period.  

“It feels like Tekla and I have discovered a precious, precious jewel,” she continued. “The Covid Year was a chrysalis of sorts, a very tender and vulnerable time for everyone. So now to take this precious jewel out of the comfort and safety of our cocoon and share it in the world feels admittedly daunting (we used to perform so much; it is such a surprise that this now feels extraordinary). But also, it feels like an act of love. Musicians make music; this is what we CAN do to offer some sweetness and balm to our world after these 14-odd months of isolation and fear and loss the whole world has experienced together.”

With so much time to think about this year’s festival (last year’s was done virtually), Cunningham said the pieces all seemed to fall easily into place.

“This summer felt easier because of the pandemic – Brahms we’ve been working on for so long, and Schubert seemed like such a beautiful way to return,” she said. “Bach is universally beloved. It’s really conversational, beautiful and nourishing for people right now.”

Cunningham said she was excited to bring harpist Maxine Eilander on board for the Schubert selections in July.

“Maxine has a 19th century harp; Schubert wrote for both harp and piano,” she explained. “I’ve always wanted to hear Danielle Reutter-Harrah sing these songs with that accompaniment. The harp gives a real sense of spaciousness, it creates a magical sound – it feels radiant and celestial. And with Schubert a lot of his songs are about the outdoors, so I saw this as a great way to return from COVID.”

Besides collaborating with local musicians, WIMF also chooses a local artist to create the festival poster each year. This year’s artist is Stacey Neumiller, of Coupeville.

“She is just an amazing landscape artist and we wanted to feature her this year,” Cunningham said.

Information and tickets are available online at whidbeyislandmusicfestival.org and tickets are also available through WICA for select performances. Organizers ask that those attending be fully vaccinated and ask that proof of vaccination be provided for the indoor concerts. For the outdoor concerts, audience members should bring a lawn chair or blanket to sit upon.

Cunningham hopes audiences will be as thrilled to share in these festival performances as the artists are to be a part of them.

“Hopefully we’ll be bringing joy to people who may have been isolated – joy and community,” she said. “And I hope they come away with appreciation, feeling happy and uplifted. It’s one thing we can experience together and I hope it will be calming and nourishing.”