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When the Bellingham Festival of Music debuts its season on June 30, the hills around Western Washington University will fill up with visiting musicians. And many more pieces will fall into place than just those presented onstage at the WWU Performing Arts Center. It takes a community to produce this festival each year, with a great many of the details set in place behind the scenes.

One of the largest details to nail down is making sure all performers have a place to live for the festival’s four-week run. Fifty local hosts open their homes to 75 stellar orchestral musicians who travel here from nearly every state in the U.S. Only three players live in Bellingham full-time.

The calls start in October for the summer festival. There’s a core of longtime hosts not only willing to invite musicians into their homes, but who look forward to it from year to year.

“It’s a very special opportunity, to experience the life of an orchestra musician for a little while,” says Bellingham Festival of Music Executive Director Erika Block. “There’s a certain ‘ownership’ that occurs when you have a musician in your house, and then you see ‘your musician’ in concert on the stage.”

Cellist Anne McCafferty, cellist Fred Gratta, board member and home host, Marti Caputi, violinist Mark Reneau, and cellist Dennis McCafferty. Photo courtesy Bellingham Music Festival

This year not only are there dramatic changes in the festival’s programming with new Artistic Director, Marcelo Lehninger, there have also been retirements from the core of the housing community. While everyone is housed for this season, Block says, “We’re passing the baton, so to speak.”

Many musicians return to stay with the same host from year to year and deep friendships form. People look forward to seeing each other not only in the summer but during the year, as well, with some coming to celebrate Thanksgiving. The demanding life of an orchestral musician often finds them far from home and family, so these relationships take on special meaning.

Most hosts have one musician in their home. Some have three or four.

Veteran host Kathy Moffett identifies her guests this season by their instruments. “This summer I have a viola, cellist, husband-and-wife bassoon and trumpet, and their two dogs.” Moffett has been hosting since the beginning of the program, in 1993, with some of her musicians coming back year after year.

Host Kathy Mofett and one of “her musicians,” cellist Fred Gratta. Photo courtesy Bellingham Festival of Music

“It’s like a reunion for many of these musicians who have been together for the last 15 years,” she says. “Bellingham stands out from other festival cities. It’s very unusual to have supportive community housing, as we do. And the Festival has enhanced classical music in the community.”

Fred Gratta, one of the cellists returning for his 15th season and traveling from Florida, agrees. “Bellingham is very special and very different,” he says. “At many other festivals musicians have to find and pay for their own housing.” Removing this barrier is one way to ensure the yearly return of outstanding musicians; that, and the welcome they know awaits them.

“One of the things that brings me back here is the connections I’ve made,” says Gratta. “Of course I love making music with my colleagues; it’s a wonderful place to play, and I also love the community.” 

Musicians and hosts often find time to relax together during the festival’s four-week run. Photo courtesy Bellingham Music Festival

Since musicians practice in their host homes, if you love the cello — but the flute, not so much — that can often be accommodated. Musicians are strategically placed so they can partner and travel together to rehearsals and performances.

The musicians themselves are a cross-section. Hosts often discover tidbits about their guests from a love of Kimchee to those who look forward to hiking and kayaking our trails and waterways. It’s not unusual for outings to occur that take advantage of the beauty Bellingham offers. “We have a spider web of strategies to help the hosts and musicians have the best summer they can,” Block says.

The monumental task of putting together the festival begins each fall; the orchestra is fully contracted by January. This year, some of the music reflects the Brazilian roots of new Artistic Director Lehninger. “The orchestra fell in love with Marcelo,” says Block. “He’s warm and genuine and we’re looking forward to the program under his leadership.”

Oboist Danna Sundat and home host Marilyn Williams rode together in Bellingham’s annual summer bike ride, Tour de Whatcom. Photo courtesy Bellingham Music Festival

Festival attendees can look forward to music by composers such as Joaquín Rodrigo and Gabriela Lena Fank, with performances from outstanding musicians like guitarist Pablo Sainz-Villagas, pianists Natasha Paremski and Stewart Goodyear, violinist Sarah Chang, and more, as well as the traditional repertoires of Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, and Dvorák.

In addition to the seven-concert schedule at the WWU Performing Arts Center (with one performance, on July 14, at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal), several free concerts also take place around the community. Check the Bellingham Festival of Music website for more details. And then, when you attend a BFM performance this summer, look around: You’ll likely see big smiles and hearty ovations from hosts — not just for the magnificent music, but because it’s being made by their musician!

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