Musicfest Northwest is sometimes called the best-kept musical secret in Spokane – but, let’s face it, the secret has been out for decades.
Over the past 65 years, 50,000 young musicians and dancers from all over the Northwest have participated in this massive competition. This year, more than 1,000 of them will converge on Spokane for this weeklong event beginning Sunday.
How best to describe it? A piano contest times 1,000? A master class on steroids?
All that and more. Other music competitions typically judge only one or two instruments a year, but Musicfest Northwest judges all eight major divisions (ballet, brass, flute, guitar, piano, reed, string and voice), according to Gail Belanger, the Musicfest president.
And most years they toss in at least one other division. This year, it’s the organ division.
Musicfest organizers say it may be the largest music festival of its kind in the U.S.
The competitions take place all week in various rooms and halls at Gonzaga University (except the organ division, which takes place Tuesday at St. John’s Cathedral). The adjudicators come from some of the most prestigious music faculties in the country.
This year’s festival will honor Margie May Ott, Spokane’s best-known piano teacher, who died last June at age 89. The new $1,000 Margie May Ott Piano Award, established by her sons, will be given to the outstanding piano player, chosen by consensus of all six piano adjudicators.
Ott also played a posthumous role in another noteworthy development this year: the return of the Spokane Symphony. Because of the many donations to the festival’s Margie May Ott Young Artist Concert Fund, the festival will bring back the orchestra for the Young Artists Concert on Wednesday.
A funding squeeze last year prevented Musicfest Northwest from hiring the symphony, but this year, the organization’s board felt “it was just too important to drop,” said Belanger.
“(The winners) not only win cash awards and a gold medal, but the big prize is getting to experience what it is like to perform as a visiting artist with an orchestra of the Spokane Symphony’s caliber,” she said.
One of the best ways to experience the event is to attend some of the adjudication sessions, which are all free and open to the public. Thursday afternoon’s piano playoffs are an annual highlight.
Also, selected Musicfest participants will perform live on KPBX-FM (91.1) on Tuesday through next Friday from 10 a.m. to noon.
The performers range from elementary-school age to post-graduate. The most advanced section, the Young Artists competition, is for musicians aged 16 to 25 (or 19 to 29 for vocalists).
You can catch the cream of the crop by attending the two showcase events at the Bing Crosby Theater:
• The Young Artists Concert, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. – The eight division winners in the Young Artists competition show off their talents in a free concert along with the Spokane Symphony, conducted by Resident Conductor Morihiko Nakahara.
• Festival Highlights Concert, May 13, 7:30 p.m., Bing Crosby Theater – The winners of the judges’ Adjudicator’s Choice awards in all nine divisions perform in a free showcase.
These concerts are among Spokane’s best musical bargains of the year: Both are free.