At Leavenworth's Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival the deer, swallows and coyotes play, along with some stellar musicians, in a knockout setting.
LEAVENWORTH, Chelan County — What, no barn?
What the Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival has instead is a gem of a concert hall with a miracle of a view. When you take a seat in Canyon Wren Recital Hall, you find yourself looking through a Cinerama-size, multipaneled picture window at Sleeping Lady, the sloping peak that lends the nearby Leavenworth resort its name.
The musicians often occupy a raised stage between you and the glorious vista. It may initially seem foolhardy of them to compete with such a magnificent setting — but once they strike their first notes, your eyes are on them as much as the mountain spectacle.
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Last Sunday, violinist Blaise Magniere and pianist Christina Dahl kicked off the festival with a Mozart sonata that, from its opening notes, had just the right sparkle and swagger. Minutes later, the stately melancholy of the piece’s central slow movement was enhanced by subtle changes in the mountain twilight.
As for the racing rhythmic trickery of its closing Presto, it got some lively illustration from a seemingly spring-loaded flock of swallows that kept shooting into flight in time with the music.
By the time the concert closed with a Rachmaninoff sonata (cellist Sally Singer in seamless, pulsing sync with festival artistic director Oksana Ezhokina on keyboards), the mountains were in silhouette and the audience was sublimely happy.
This is Ezhokina’s first year as sole artistic director of a festival that’s been going since the early 1990s. Seattle audiences will know her as a regular on our chamber-music circuit.
She’ll become more of a local for us in the fall when she takes a position as chair of piano studies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. She plans to continue as artistic director of the Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival where, judging by the cheers she got as she stepped on the Canyon Wren stage, she’s a star.
Ezhokina joined Icicle Creek Music Center in 2002, by which time the festival was well-established, she said in an interview last weekend. When founders Marcia Kaufmann and Scott Hosfeld stepped down in 2007, Ezhokina and Singer took over as co-artistic directors.
Details on the beginnings of the festival in the 1990s have an aura of legend about them. According to anecdotes Ezhokina has heard, builders were still nailing fixtures into place as the music was being played.
Each year, the festival attracts top-drawer musicians who have developed a strong attachment to the place. In addition to presenting five evening concerts, they serve as faculty for the Icicle Creek Chamber Music Institute.
Although the Institute is open to students as young as 15, those taking part in it this year are all 18 or older. They’ll present afternoon recitals at 1 p.m. July 17 and 24.
“They’re all college students, college graduates or doctoral students,” Ezhokina says, “so I expect it’s going to be a really high level of performance.”
While most of the returning professionals know what to expect from Icicle Creek, the students are seeing it for the first time.
“That’s always great to watch them when they disembark from their shuttle or their bus,” Ezhokina says. “They immediately look up — and their jaws drop when they realize where they’ve arrived.”
No amount of description of the facility, she adds, can convey what it’s like.
“Even with my personal friends who’ve never been here, when I try to tell them where I live and work, they don’t quite understand.”
Icicle Creek Music Center isn’t just home to the festival but to a year-round concert season programmed by Ezhokina, with the Icicle Creek Piano Trio as its ensemble in residence. The trio — comprising Ezhokina, Singer and violinist Jennifer Caine — is a draw in itself. They have two fine CDs to their credit on the Con Brio label, featuring fare that ranges from Schubert to Shostakovich.
I got a partial sample of their in-concert magic when Singer and Ezhokina paired up on the Rachmaninoff — not a composer I’m crazy about. But in their hands, the continual surge and ebb of the piece made an exacting architectural sense as well as an emotional sense. Ezhokina’s supple sway on the keyboards dovetailed beautifully with Singer’s protean precision on the cello.
The big Rachmaninoff cascades were there but so was an anchoring low Rachmaninoff rumble. At the crisp close of the second movement — a moto perpetuo affair, with the “moto” continually veering around tight bends — the audience audibly registered its pleasure with a sharp collective gasp.
Festival founders Kaufmann and Hosfeld were “very much inspired,” Ezhokina believes, by Banff, the Alberta town in the Canadian Rockies where the Banff Summer Arts Festival now draws visitors from around the world. The idea at Icicle Creek was simply to put a top-class music facility “in the middle of the most amazing landscape.” Harriet Bullitt, founder of Sleeping Lady Resort, played a key role in getting the festival rolling, along with arts donors Wilf and Kathy Woods of Wenatchee.
“Summer festivals are often times in places that are beautiful,” Ezhokina says. “Places that aren’t necessarily remote but somehow very stunning.”
She points out that the attractions of Leavenworth that could lure visitors there along with the music events include a vibrant wine scene, with numerous tasting rooms in town, and outdoor sports activities, including hiking, biking and white-water rafting.
Then there’s the wildlife factor: the deer that sometimes come up to the window during a concert and other critters that occasionally try to join the show.
During intermission last Sunday, Lisa Bergman, general director of Icicle Creek Music Center (and director of Seattle’s Mostly Nordic chamber series), told the audience, “About 35 minutes ago there was a tremendous chorus of coyotes howling up in the canyon — and ladies and gentlemen, not even Lincoln Center can top that.”
What’s it like to be a professional classical musician based in Leavenworth?
“It certainly provides you with peace of mind and quietude,” Ezhokina says. “There isn’t that element of being in traffic, racing in the car somewhere. And it’s a beautiful place.”
Few paradises come without a disadvantage, however, and for a travel-dependent musician, Leavenworth winters can cause some worries.
“If you have to get somewhere to a concert, you’re sitting there biting your nails on the night before,” Ezhokina admits. “Is the avalanche going to come down? Is the pass going to close?”
It hasn’t happened in the nine years she’s been there: “So far, so good.”
The festival attracted a loyal local following from the beginning, and Ezhokina feels a special connection with her Leavenworth-area audience. Still, she’s drawn to the idea of more out-of-towners checking out the festival as well.
“We’d love to see the Seattle crowds take a little time off their busy schedules,” she says. “I know it can seem like a daunting drive. But it’s really only two hours and 15 minutes, two hours and 30 minutes — and there’s no avalanche in the summer.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org