World-traveling violist Richard O’Neill, who grew up in Sequim, invited a friend of his over for some concerts on the Olympic Peninsula.
The friend is a pianist who has won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship; he’s also a writer for The New Yorker and the New Republic.
Yes, Jeremy Denk is a busy guy, but not too busy to recall the last time he came to this area.
“I have vivid memories of playing in Port Angeles 20 years ago, and thinking the audience was fabulous,” Denk wrote, “and the place was one of the most magical I’d ever seen.”
Denk, who lives in New York City, shares that view with O’Neill and with violinist James Garlick, who also spent his youth in Clallam County.
The three men will meet again here in the inaugural Music on the Strait, a chamber music festival centered around Peninsula College Aug. 30-Sept. 1.
In announcing the festival last week, Garlick and O’Neill, the event’s artistic directors, describe their hopes: to not only bring great live music here on Labor Day weekend, but also to give this place yet another economic draw.
The music for the concert series is chosen, the venues reserved and the tickets went on sale June 15 — but Garlick knows that in a sense, he’s just getting warmed up. He knows that to establish Music on the Strait as a destination event, one that people mark their calendars for, he needs sponsors.
As with the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts and the Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra, ticket sales don’t cover expenses. Contributions from local businesses and individuals pay the bills and keep ticket prices relatively affordable.
Garlick and O’Neill, artistic directors of the festival, invite the curious to MusicontheStrait.com, where sponsor packages and VIP tickets are explained. For example, full festival passes, with premium seating at all three concerts and a poster signed by the musicians, are $250 and available now.
Music on the Strait is getting its start under the umbrella of the nonprofit Port Angeles Symphony, Garlick noted, so donations are tax-deductible.
Come mid-June, the Music on the Strait website will become a ticket portal. Prices will range from pay-what-you-can for general admission to the finale, which will bring together all five featured artists to play Ives, Dvorak and Ravel, Sept. 1 at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 301 Lopez Ave.
For the other two performances at the college’s Maier Hall — opening night Aug. 30 with O’Neill and Denk and Aug. 31 for Denk’s piano recital — it’s $35 general.
Students age 25 or younger will be admitted free to any or all three of the events.
Denk, known for his collaboration with violinist Joshua Bell, typically performs in big venues — much larger than Maier Hall’s 130 seats.
Unlike many musicians who piggyback Port Angeles onto Seattle appearances, Denk “is coming out here just for us,” noted Garlick.
When asked for his reasons, Denk said simply, “Great friends,” as in the other players in this festival.
Joining the men for the weekend of music are Elisa Barston, a principal violinist with the Seattle Symphony and a recent guest soloist with the Port Angeles Symphony, and cellist Ani Aznavoorian, O’Neill’s longtime friend known for her playing with California’s Camerata Pacifica, orchestras in Chicago, Tokyo and Helsinki, and the Boston Pops.
O’Neill and Garlick, a Port Angeles High School Orchestra alumnus, have known each other since they were boys taking the MV Coho to music lessons in Victoria; they’d play duets as they crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Both earned degrees in music at Juilliard in New York City and both have traveled the world, with O’Neill giving many concerts in Korea, Japan, Vienna and elsewhere, and Garlick likewise performing with orchestras across Europe and the Americas. In spring 2015, he was concertmaster with the Northwest Sinfonietta in a historic performance with a Cuban ensemble in Havana, the first time since 1959 that U.S. and Cuban musicians played together.
Garlick and O’Neill met again in 2017 when both traveled back to the Peninsula. They performed together with the 65-piece Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra, playing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante to a capacity crowd at the Port Angeles High School auditorium.
“I was so very moved by the warm reception,” O’Neill said, adding for such a remote spot, the North Olympic Peninsula has a lot going on.
He and Garlick want to add more, and they’re not about to wait around for a performing arts center to be built.
“We want to give something back to the community that got us both started,” said Garlick.
He added that he finds Port Angeles still a place where people value the arts. Dr. Chuck Whitney, a longtime Port Angeles Symphony board member, and symphony conductor and music director Jonathan Pasternack are among those who embraced the idea of a chamber music festival here.
Whitney, for his part, has joined Garlick and O’Neill as a volunteer member of the festival team.
As for the guest performers, Music on the Strait is a kind of retreat from the frantic life of cities and trans-Atlantic flights, especially for Jeremy Denk.
“He’s famously in demand,” Garlick said — yet, “he jumped at the opportunity.”