One day in August of 2013, a little more than a year before pianist Julio Elizalde officially succeeded violinist Alan Iglitzin as artistic director of the Olympic Music Festival (OMF), Elizalde and fellow musicians rehearsed William Walton’s difficult Piano Quartet in D minor for an upcoming concert.
As with much of that summer’s programming, and that of the summer before, Elizalde, who holds a doctorate of musical arts degree from the Juilliard School, had selected the Walton piece and booked the other players.
One of the latter, cellist Matthew Zalkind, said to him about Walton’s famously turbulent composition: “Man, this is really hard. Did you think about this,” Elizalde recalled.
“When you have control over programming,” Elizalde said in a Seattle Times interview at the time, “you can get a little trigger-happy. An individual program will seem great, but you don’t realize what it will be like going week to week from one challenge to the next.”
Six years later, Elizalde is even deeper into the challenges of running the annual festival’s behind-the-curtain operations as well as realizing its onstage mission to bring great chamber music to the Olympic Peninsula. Besides his administrative acumen, he’s also astonishingly ubiquitous at keyboards during each OMF season, joining with his numerous chamber cohorts to bring a vast repertoire to life.
Having smoothly replaced festival founder Iglitzin, 87, at the helm, Elizalde, 35, has been steering OMF to a reinvention spurred by significant changes.
The largest of these, starting in 2016, was the festival’s relocation from Iglitzin’s charming, 55-acre dairy farm near Quilcene to Fort Worden Historical State Park in Port Townsend. Upon retiring, Iglitzin asked that the summer-weekend series find a new home and move on from the farm’s iconic barn that had served as a mainstage for decades.
Elizalde treated that loss of a tradition as an opportunity to gain something for artists and audiences.
“People loved the barn, and it was such a magical venue,” he says. “But it also had challenges in terms of temperature and what instruments you could bring in.”
At Fort Worden’s indoor, temperature-and-humidity controlled Wheeler Theater, there are new possibilities. A partnership between the festival, Classic Pianos of Bellevue and Yamaha resulted, Elizalde says, in acquiring “an unbelievable Yamaha CFX [grand concert] piano, a huge, gorgeous piano I would be more than satisfied to play in any major concert hall.”
Other artists can also feel confident about bringing out their best, most delicate instruments in Wheeler Theater rather than perform on alternatives. Superstar violinist Sarah Chang, a past OMF guest who played in recital at this year’s pre-festival teaser concert on July 13, now feels freer to use her 1717 Guarneri del Gesù violin, a gift from mentor Isaac Stern.
Elizalde also scaled back the number of concert weekends from an exhausting 12 to six. More significantly, he embraced a different approach to programming, one that largely moved away from composer-centric bills to curated themes offering context to the works and lives of composers. It’s a development that has worked for many Seattle Symphony programs, among others.
Examples this summer include “Transcendence” (Aug. 10), pairing a dying Franz Schubert’s angelic Cello Quintet in C major with Dmitri Shostakovich’s dark Piano Trio No. 2 in E major, written when the composer and all of Leningrad were surrounded by Hitler’s army. There is also “Secret Love” (Sept. 1), a musical exploration of the complicated relationships between Johannes Brahms and Clara and Robert Schumann.
Elizalde has also expanded opportunities for the Olympic Chamber Music Fellowships. The fellows program identifies four or five deserving young musicians on the edge of a professional career, and invites them to rehearse and perform with seasoned veterans. They also learn a few survival strategies for classical musicians, such as how to deal with contract negotiations and handle taxes.
“The environment created at OMF fosters learning and a safe environment to create, grow and share all that with the supportive audiences,” violinist and one of this year’s fellows, Adelya Nartadjieva, wrote in an email.
Some of the other artists participating in 2019’s imminent festival include former Kronos Quartet cellist Jennifer Culp; clarinetist Mark Dover of Grammy nominated Imani Winds; and Kristin Lee, member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and artistic director of Seattle’s Emerald City Music.
Among returnees is violinist Ray Chen, about to go on a tour with Elizalde; and pianist/clarinetist Teddy Abrams, who will headline the always popular “Midsummer Gala” at the Northwest Maritime Center.
As for Elizalde’s propensity for taking on a lot of piano duties during the multiweek events, he says, “In my first few years of being artistic director, I kind of suffered through a little arrogance in how I could be ready for all these concerts. Over time, I have learned to dial it back a bit so I have time to breathe.”
Olympic Music Festival: 2019 Summer Season, Aug, 10-Sept. 8; Wheeler Theater, Fort Worden Historical State Park, 200 Battery Way, and the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St., Port Townsend; ticket prices vary — see website for details; olympicmusicfestival.org