Northwest BachFest artistic director Zuill Bailey’s 10-year relationship with the organization sprouted from an impromptu visit to Spokane that almost didn’t happen.
Busy living the life of a touring musician in early 2012, Bailey was – and for the most part, still is – constantly jetting between states from concert to concert.
On the recommendation of then artistic director Gunther Schuller, Gertrude Harvey invited Bailey to participate in the Bach festival as a guest artist.
“I had asked Gunther about having some more cello suites in the Bach Festival and I asked him if he knew Yo-Yo Ma,” Harvey said. “And he said, ‘I do … but, I know someone even better.’”
When she called, Bailey assumed he wouldn’t be able to visit. But, with a little digging into his tour schedule, Harvey was able to find a time midjourney from El Paso, Texas, to Sitka, Alaska, that would allow for a two-day stopover in Spokane.
“We still laugh about this – I just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said.
During his recital the first night, Bailey performed the first three Bach cello suites at St. John’s Cathedral.
“He stayed an extra day – he never stays an extra day,” she said. “But he did.”
It was a performance that had music fans buzzing. As critic Donivan Johnson wrote in The Spokesman-Review, “Bailey’s seemingly effortless technique made Bach’s music dance, sing and fill the air with joy. Every movement had a unique voice, and each time a section of dance movement was repeated there was something new and different to hear.”
By that time, Harvey had heard about the work Bailey had been doing with the El Paso Pro-Musica concert series and wanted to hear more.
“So I asked him to dinner and we started talking,” she said. “And that’s essentially how he came to us – he was interested, we were interested, and it all just merged at the right time.”
That night at dinner Harvey asked if, over the course of the following year, Bailey would be willing to assume Schuller’s role as artistic director.
Bailey accepted the offer and returned the following year to officially announce the transition. To celebrate Schuller’s contributions to the organization, Bailey played the complete cello suites.
“And Gunther was here – I played them for him and he sat in the front row,” Bailey said. “It was this massive embrace both of his decades here and what we could look forward to in the future.”
Since then, Bailey has spent the past 10 years pushing the organization onward and upward.
“It’s taken 10 years, but when things are built brick by brick, that creates an incredibly solid, trusted foundation, which is also the legacy of (BachFest),” he said, recalling years of experimenting with new and diverse concert programs. “It’s been around for so long, and we created such an amazing quality of product that … now that we have the quality and the quantity, it’s a match made in heaven.”
Bailey feels that the work he and the team at Connoisseur Concerts have done has enabled them to look back with pride. But even though he’s satisfied with their work, he knows it isn’t finished.
“Music and the arts are fuel … and this community deserves as much as possible,” Bailey said.
Since weathering the coronavirus pandemic, Bailey said, his belief in that fact has grown tenfold.
In the beginning, “I saw it as a place for inspiration,” he said. Over the next several years, as the festival grew from four concerts to more than 40 in a year and broadened the organization’s potential for outreach through pop-up concerts among other means, his understanding deepened.
“But during COVID, I realized that the arts are where we gather, to be together, to bond and to be inspired,” he said. “And the gathering and being together part isn’t to be taken for granted anymore – nothing can substitute a live experience … with your people … surrounded by the beauty of the arts.”
And, now that in-person concerts are starting back up again, “it just feels right.”