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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pianists Archie Chen and Rhona Gouldson work to revamp Musicfest Northwest

Archie Chen and Rhona Gouldson are co-chairing the piano division of Musicfest Northwest, now in its 74th year. (Jeff Schindler)

Seventy-three years.

Nine divisions.

More than 47,000 entrants.

By the numbers, Musicfest Northwest is impressive.

The festival was founded as the Greater Spokane Music and Allied Arts Festival in 1946 by Spokane piano teacher Josephine Clark. Since then,

nearly 50,000 performers have participated in nine divisions: piano, flute, organ, ballet, voice, string, reed, guitar and brass.

Students range from first grade through post-graduate.

Notable Musicfest alumni include baritone Thomas Hampson, former Spokane Symphony concertmaster Kelly Farris, pianist Stephen Drury, mezzo-soprano Linda Adams Caple, tenor Frank Hernandez and violinist Jason Moody.

When Musicfest Northwest returns for its 74th year Sunday through May 17, , longtime attendees can look forward to the return of a familiar face.

In 1993, pianist Archie Chen, who began participating in Musicfest when he was 8, won the Young Artist competition.

Chen studied with beloved music teacher Mary Toy, graduated from Mead High School and studied at Indiana University with the likes of Menahem Pressler and Edmund Battersby.

After attending a master class with Irish pianist John O’Conor, Chen moved to Dublin, his home for the past 15 years.

Back in Spokane for the time being, Chen and his wife, pianist Rhona Gouldson, are co-chairing the piano division of Musicfest Northwest.

Gouldson and Chen are founders and co-directors of the Piano Academy of Ireland and the Dublin International Piano Festival.

Gouldson grew up in Dublin, studied piano and harp at the Dublin College of Music, now called the Dublin Institute of Technology, and went on to study music at Trinity College.

They moved to Spokane with their two children for the year to be closer to Chen’s mother and were enlisted to work with the festival.

“Our number one priority is to be here to help Archie’s mom, but given that we’ve always been so heavily involved in things musically, it’s great that we can also put our energy into what we’re good at while we’re here,” Gouldson said. “I think that’s adding a nice dimension to our stay here.”

In the weeks leading up to the festival, Chen and Gouldson organized events for interested musicians.

Chen hosted a performance master class, and Gouldson organized a workshop where Whitworth University adjunct piano professor Rachelle Ventura gave students tips for dealing with nerves before a performance.

During the week of Musicfest, adjudicating sessions will be held at Gonzaga University. For a complete schedule, visit

“There’ll be little mini master classes after their performances, so they will get not only a written report and but also some actual hands-on working with the adjudicator who will be able to show them how to improve their performance,” Gouldson said.

Near the end of the week, participants will be highlighted in two concerts, both held at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

On Wednesday, the Young Artist Concert will feature division winners (all but ballet) performing with the Spokane Symphony.

The Young Artist performers will be picked up and driven to the Fox by A List Limousines.

“These young people really deserve the royal treatment because they’ve really put so much blood, sweat and tears into the preparation, hours and hours of practice,” Gouldson said.

Musicfest Northwest closes on May 17 with the Festival Highlights Concert, which features performances from each of the nine divisions as chosen by adjudicators.

Both concerts are free and open to the public.

“There’s no reason why the Fox shouldn’t be filled because when else do you get a chance to go into the Fox for free and check out the beautiful architecture of the place and the sound, the acoustics are perfect there,” Chen said.

Chen, a former Musicfest adjudicator who has also performed with the Spokane Symphony and Spokane String Quartet, and Gouldson are excited about the increased Young Artist prize money.

This year, the Young Artist winner will receive $700, plus a $300 travel stipend for the winner who’s traveled more than 150 miles.

The second place winner will receive $250.

One high school student in the piano division will receive the $1,000 Margie May Ott Award.

“These things are in hopes of getting a large pool of participants, attracting from as far as Wyoming,” Chen said.

Chen and Gouldson credit the community, sponsors, donors and volunteers for keeping Musicfest Northwest alive and well for 74 years.

Though their relocation to Spokane is intended to be temporary, Chen and Gouldson haven’t ruled out the possibility of continuing to help with the festival in the future.

“Our roster of help is diminishing but we’re trying to recruit as many talented people with great ideas as possible to come on board, because this is what this festival needs,” Chen said. “It needs fresh ideas. It needs fresh blood, and that’s what we’re here for.”