Bellingham is known as a music town. From bluegrass at the Green Frog to hip-hop at the Glow there’s a sound for every ear. Less well trod perhaps than the streets of downtown, up the hill at WWU, the Music Department offers a variety of performances that complement the scene and offer the community a way to expand its musical palate.
On April 23rd, in Western’s Performing Arts Center, an audience of all ages took in the department’s Faculty Showcase. Featuring diverse pieces — from cello professor John Friesen’s solo performance of a Bach suite to a vibraphone rendition of And I Love Her by percussion area coordinator Patrick Roulet — the show not only was a display of the talent walking the halls of the PAC, but also it didn’t cost a dime.
In fact, at WWU, most of the concerts are free. April alone has featured 12 such shows. According to Dr. Bertil Van Boer, a professor of theory at Western’s Collegium Musicum, “as a state public college, Western has viewed free admission concerts as a public service and has since kept the doors of the Performing Arts Center open to the public for their enjoyment.” And enjoy they have. Van Boer continues, “there is an overall shared excitement for performances in the PAC and translates into all sorts of people coming to attend.”
49-year-old Tenzing Kernan, a web developer and longtime Bellingham resident has been attending the free shows ever since he came across them two years ago and realized he could walk the Arboretum trail to the PAC. “These guys put on a great show,” Kernan raves, “I’m just so impressed by the talent and to see the students kicking butt.” But there’s another reason he keeps coming back, his daughters, Kelly and McKenna, 8 and 10 respectively. “Since my children have been going,” he says, “they’ve been way more excited about learning music and playing the piano.” They were a little intimidated at first, he admitted, but “the more shows we went to the more their excitement kept them planted in their seats with their eyes wide.”
The girls took a break from building a treehouse to talk about the music. McKenna loves the way it “flows along and there’s some crazy parts and there’s some parts that are calm and peaceful” while her sister says “it’s really nice to listen to, it’s pretty, and it’s really fun to go to [the performances].” The youngsters also like the length of the shows — “It’s not too long” McKenna said, and Kelly’s 8-year-old attention span appreciates the intermissions. Asked if she would recommend it to her friends McKenna said “I would tell my friends there’s a show at the PAC and it’s really cool, so you should go there.”
That the shows attract fans of all ages shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. “Due to the universal nature of music,” says Van Boer, “it attracts all sorts of people — at the WWU concerts families come to see their sons or daughters, students come to see their friends, children are brought and are thus introduced to whatever music is playing, and regular Bellingham community members come to see what younger generations are listening to.”
From Symphony Orchestra to Jazz Ensemble to Stream of Life, a performance combining piano and dance, variety plays an important part in putting together the events. As Van Boer explains, “a year in advance the ensemble directors pick the repertoire and base their decisions on their public appeal” which means “whether they have classical elements or include contemporary works” there’s a home at WWU. Beyond exposing the community of Bellingham to diverse music, Van Boer adds “the directors are also making these decisions to educate WWU students, to expose them to the grand variety music has to offer” and to “introduce them to the new communities who share those same interests.”
Says Kernan, who looks forward to a summer slate full of concerts, “this is an incredible community resource available for free, and everyone should take advantage of it whether it’s a on a date or with your family.”
Nick Damski is a writer/producer from Los Angeles and now calls Bellingham his home.