Whidbey Island Music Festival promises a unique collection of concerts

— Created July 6, 2022 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

If it ain’t baroque, then it’s simply not the Whidbey Island Music Festival.

The festival,  now in its 17th year, celebrates classical music played on period instruments and  is back with a full concert schedule, beginning with “Bach’s Coffee Cantata” Saturday at 3 p.m. at Coupeville High School. There will also be a free pre-concert show Saturday at 2:15 p.m. by members of the Early Music Youth Academy. (They will also perform Aug. 7.) Bach’s Coffee Cantata will be repeated Sunday at 3 p.m. at St. Augustine’s in-the-Woods Episcopal Church in Freeland.

The festival will continue with the programs, Heroines: Women of Power and Influence July 23-24; Bohemian Rhapsody Aug. 6-7; and Love and Longing: Johannes Brahms and Florence Price  Aug. 13-14. (See the full lineup of dates and times at whidbeyislandmusicfestival.org.)

Festival founder and director, Tekla Cunningham, said she is pleased to be welcoming both new and returning artists to this year’s slate of performers.

“Michele Kennedy is a wonderful soprano from the Bay Area in California and is a delightful and charming performer,” said Cunningham. “One of my favorite violists, Cynthia Keiko Black, will be playing in the classical program in August. Debra Nagy, America’s leading player of historical oboes, and an old and dear friend of mine, will be back on Whidbey for the first time in about 10 years [Aug. 6-7], and I’m so thrilled to share her incredible artistry and knowledge with Whidbey Island.

“The last program pairs Brahms with Florence Price, a Black American composer whose music is beginning to enjoy more attention,” Cunningham continued. “I’m thrilled to welcome my favorite alto Reginald Mobley back to Whidbey. He was nominated for a Grammy this year for his album of music with Agave ensemble that included Florence Price’s songs, three of which will be on the concert. We’re pairing Florence Price with a very special set of songs that Brahms wrote for alto, viola, and piano along with other instrumental works. I’ve been looking forward to hearing Reggie sing these songs all year!”

This first full season of in-person concerts since the pandemic promises an interesting mix of vocal and instrumental pieces as well as music from different eras.

“There’s a great variety of time periods and genres this year – and a healthy mix of instrumental pieces and vocal chamber music,” described Cunningham. “In the Heroines of Myth and History program, there is captivating storytelling in early baroque works by Monteverdi (including Arianna’s famous Lament) and Merula. Baroque composers were obsessed with recreating the music and instruments of ancient Greece and were always digging into classical mythology for plots for operas. This program includes a fantastic violin sonata that tells the story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, in a purely instrumental form.

“The first program [this weekend] will begin with Bach’s beloved Coffee Cantata, paired with instrumental works by Graupner and Telemann,” she continued. “Both Graupner and Telemann were extremely famous during their lifetimes – much more so than Bach – and it’s great to bring well-deserved attention to their extremely beautiful music.”

Cunningham said it is interesting to listen to the differences when music is played on period instruments instead of modern instruments. There are obvious differences in construction and in materials. Cunningham’s baroque violin, for instance, has strings made from gut rather than steel. The WIMF offers people the opportunity to hear the music performed on the instruments in use when they were written, adding a new layer to the sound.

“During the baroque period, there was a fascination with the art of rhetoric – both in speech and in music,” she said. “In music, the idea was that to create a compelling performance, you needed to communicate something in a very persuasive way to the audience – not just by demonstrating instrumental virtuosity, but by ‘speaking’ through the instrument, in a way that an orator or an actor would deliver lines; delivering not just the notes, but the timing, the affect, the rhythm of language.”

She said musicians today try to glean clues from the manuscripts, the music’s context and personal experiences to understand what the music wants to express. The period instruments enhance that.

 “I think what feels different with period instruments is that the music tends to feel ‘spoken’ and has a large variety of colors and affects, and we strive to evoke a range of emotions in the listener,” said Cunningham. “This can be quite different on modern instruments, where the aesthetic might be more about creating a consistent sound or very long lines.”

In addition to a variety of music at this year’s festival concerts, there are also a variety of locations, from auditoriums to gardens, covering the length of Whidbey Island.

“This year we’re returning to St. Augustine’s in-the Woods in Freeland (where the very first concerts took place in 2006) for the first time since before the pandemic,” Cunningham said. “It’s great to be back there in the beautiful acoustics and atmosphere. This year we are performing twice at Cultus Bay Gardens. Mary Fisher has cultivated a gorgeous garden there and we’ll play on the porch of the house facing the lawn. The covered porch acts as an acoustical shell so the sound is perfect from every seat on the lawn. Last year there were a few incredible moments during a Schubert song where a hummingbird came and fluttered inches away from the soprano as she was singing. Pure magic!”

One of the final concerts will take place at the Noorlag Salon in Oak Harbor. It is also the first year the festival will hold performances in Coupeville, in hopes of drawing audiences from central and north Whidbey.

But more than anything, Cunningham said she is grateful to be back with live performances.

“After this long COVID time it feels important to bring people together for shared experiences,” she said. “I think a lot of people, myself included, struggle with the many demands on our time, and the different kinds of demands that ‘time-saving’ technology brings. A concert is a moment where you can leave everything at the door, and just bask in the feelings that music brings. Attending a performance allows us to slow down and focus on one thing; the experience has a kind of magnetism. It brings people into deep presence and listening, which is a rare and precious experience. There is a post-concert glow that I see in audiences – experiencing live music just makes people happy.”

A complete lineup of all festival performances is available at whidbeyislandmusicfestival.org, along with ticket information, concert details and artist profiles.