Marrowstone Festival showcases young classical musicians

The Marrowstone Music Festival runs July 30-Aug. 9.
The Marrowstone Music Festival runs July 30-Aug. 9. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Ryan Dudenbostel was a student in the Seattle Youth Symphonies Marrowstone program when it was held at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. He’s now one of the faculty conductors and is the chamber music coordinator.

With the program now in its 72nd year, about 200 young musicians from all over North America take part in two weeks of intense study and performance at Western Washington University.

Dudenbostel, whose full-time job is the director of orchestral studies at Western, says he began working for Marrowstone when it moved to Western in the early 2000s. He has been in his current position conducting and coordinating Marrowstone’s student chamber music program for six years.

The festival begins Thursday, July 30, and features 27 masterpieces performed in six concerts over two weeks. All of the concerts, except two, are at Western’s Performing Arts Center; the Aug. 2 and 9 concerts are at Mount Baker Theatre.

Much like the recent Bellingham Festival of Music, Marrowstone draws world-class performers and educators from top orchestras, universities, and conservatories.

This year’s repertoire includes Copland’s “Billy the Kid” and Holst’s “The Planets.”

“The energy of the students is absolutely electrifying,” says Dudenbostel, “and it’s a wonderful environment to be a part of every summer.”

Marrowstone is special, he says, because it combines the seriousness of a pre-professional music festival with the camaraderie of summer camp.

“To be sure, the students have a lot of fun while they’re here, but they are anything but casual when it comes to music. Many of them are planning to continue on into careers as performers, but certainly not all,” he says. “Regardless of their professional paths, they are all deeply passionate, driven people. And I don’t know the numbers, but I would guess that the majority of students return to Marrowstone for multiple summers.”

Dudenbostel works with students primarily in the setting of large orchestra rehearsals and chamber music coaching, but he sometimes has the opportunity to engage with them one-on-one.

“I hope the takeaway from their time with me is a habit of always being curious and reflective about what they are doing, constantly asking questions and evaluating their own work,” he says.

Jeffrey Gilliam, professor of piano at Western and artistic director of Western’s Sanford-Hill Piano Series, has participated in Marrowstone since 2000, the festival’s last season at Fort Worden.

Speaking from the heart, he says he loves Marrowstone’s core educational mission. Speaking in a more professional and educational manner, he says Marrowstone provides him an opportunity to recruit talented piano students to Western.

“I first met my former WWU piano student Michael Refvem years ago at Marrowstone when he was a high school student,” Gilliam says.

On Aug. 1, Refvem will perform the spectacular harpsichord part in Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with faculty colleagues and the Marrowstone Chamber Orchestra.

“I hope to find students who are ‘diamonds in the rough’ at Marrowstone,” Gilliam says. “Sometimes they are already fully formed diamonds! Many are all set on following music as a profession.”

Between 2000 and 2015, Gilliam will have performed over 50 works at Marrowstone, mainly works of chamber music, but also piano solo works and chamber concertos with “big” piano parts.

“I enjoy facing the challenges that Marrowstone presents me with, both as a teacher and as a performer,” he says.

Gilliam says Marrowstone is an orchestral training festival where students are assigned seating in the various orchestras and chamber music groups based on their entrance audition. In that sense, Marrowstone is competitive, but students have moments of fun structured into their busy daily schedules.

Eric Kean, who teaches viola and mathematics at Western, has been on Marrowstone’s faculty since 2003. He says he enjoys being part of a festival that can have a profound impact on the musical development of high school and college students, and he likes collaborating with other artists from around the country in chamber music concerts.

“I would call it ‘intense fun;’ oftentimes the students learn so much in the two weeks that they’re there, that they need the following year to process the ideas,” he says. “With that said, it’s also a lot of fun; from the talent show —tap dancing, skits and more —to the times that the students have to get to know one another in more informal settings.”

All three — Dudenbostel, Gilliam and Kean — agree that the faculty become close.

Many have been doing the festival for years, says Kean, so they know each other well.

The board game Assassin is a Marrowstone tradition, says Gilliam, and there are ice cream socials, and an annual mid-Marrowstone barbecue and potluck in Gilliam’s backyard. It feels like a family, he adds, with most of the same faculty members returning year after year.

And Kean says that as a Bellingham native, he takes it upon himself to do at least one hike a year with another faculty member.

Marrowstone Music Festival

When: July 30-Aug. 9

Where: Western Washington University and Mount Baker Theatre

Cost: Season subscriptions and individual concert tickets available. Tickets for concerts at Western: 360-650-6146, tickets.wwu.edu; tickets for Mount Baker Theatre: 360-734-6080, mountbakertheatre.com.

Details: marrowstone.org.