Lake Chelan Bach Fest: From humble beginnings to a 10 day event, 41 years later

Feiner Musicke, husband and wife duo, Mel and Ellen Foster, performed their act Divinely, Disrupted Delights at The Landing in Chelan on July 9. Courtesy Feiner Musicke

The Lake Chelan Bach Fest orchestra and chorus wrapped up the 41st festival on Saturday evening, July 16, with their Pops in the Park Concert, in the Riverwalk Pavilion. RuthEdna Keys/LCM

CHELAN - In 1981, Lake Chelan United Methodist Church had just attained an organ for their liturgical worship. To celebrate the new instrument, a few local women gathered a chorus and organized the performance of a cantata by famed German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The small crowd which witnessed the performance so enjoyed it that organizers Cora Hartley, Kathryn Castrodale and others planned an encore for the following year and eventually held a larger event.
“From those sort of humble beginnings we moved into the 10 day, 23 event festival that we have these days which includes orchestra and chorus,” said Kerry Travers, sponsorship and ad coordinator for Bach Fest. “We have a wide variety of music and it’s not just Bach any longer, but we always do perform some Bach.”
Now the Lake Chelan Bach Fest is 41 years strong and continues the tradition of adding a summer soundtrack of enticing music for the community. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced an online festival in 2020 and a truncated version last year, Bach Fest returned in full flourish July 7-July 16.
Travers, a musician who teaches violin locally, moved to Chelan in 1994. She played in the Bach Fest orchestra that year and joined the board shortly after that. She served as president of LCBF for a decade and is still on the board. Travers is past president of the board and her role on the board is sponsorship/ad coordinator, which does fundraising for the board.
Among the many performers this year was Feiner Musicke, a husband and wife duo that combines of voice and harp, from Atlanta consisting of Mel and Ellen Foster. On July 9 they performed their act Divinely, Disrupted Delights at The Landing restaurant in Chelan. They also played alongside other acts throughout the festival. Both coming from strong musical backgrounds, the Fosters met at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. This year marked their fourth in-person perormance at Bach Fest. Accustomed to performing at large venues across the world, Mel appreciates the quiet sincerity of Chelan audiences.
“It’s a much more intimate festival,” he said. “Because of that intimacy, it feels like, at least from a performer’s point of view, you can feel the sincerity of the people who are there when often you’re so far away, so far removed from the audience. It’s as if you’re on display in a glass case. This feels much more like a community.”
Using comedy, props, audience participation and unique arrangements, the Fosters have learned to break the mold over the years, especially recently. Most of the music they perform is written for voice and piano. Ellen, a Wenatchee native, has enjoyed the challenge of transcribing the music for harp, an instrument she feels is foreign to most ears.
“People aren’t used to hearing it. They just kind of think of angels when they think of the harp,” she said. “Although it’s an art, I also have to approach it as an athlete, because it’s such a physical instrument. I’m engaged completely from my head down to my feet. You have to have coordination and you have to be strong and you have to be balanced.”
Perhaps more than past years, the Fosters experimented with new things at Bach Fest that Mel, who has taught voice at Morehouse College in Atlanta for 25 years, admitted he was afraid to try before. Their experience at this year’s events inspired them to keep pushing the envelope.
“If it is our intention as classical musicians to grow audiences, we have to begin to think outside the box of things that no longer keep us behind the glass case and people can easily, no matter what their walk of life is, come, sit and listen and find something that they can connect with,” he said. “If we don’t do that, then we might as well just kiss the tradition of classical music goodbye.”
And with a name like Bach Fest, one might suspect that the small lake town hosts 10 days of classical music. Not so. Festival goers can experience a variety of musical genres at the fest including the Beatles, George Gershwin, jazz, movie soundtracks and more.
“It’s no longer just Bach,” Travers said. “We talked about moving away from the term Bach Fest but it has recognition in the area.”
One new event organizers added this year for younger patrons was Musical Bedtimes Stories & Songs held at St. Andrew’s Church Courtyard on July 12. Other entries in the festival were Sip and Stroll, Pops in the Park and the Festival String Quartet playing at Chelan Valley wineries. All events were free.
Due to the small venues and intimate crowds, the Fosters were able to receive a response in real time, something Mel in particular appreciated.
“One of the things that’s great about it, is that you get immediate feedback and you get confirmation of what we had planned, what our intention was, that it was actually perceived in the way that we intended it to be,” he said.
Unlike similar festivals where an outside organization provides financial backing, Bach Fest is supported entirely by local North Central Washington businesses. With this year being the first full event since 2019, festival goers and planners alike have been reminded of the power local live music has.
“The most important thing for us musicians is live music tends to bring people together in a very different way than watching something online by yourself. It’s a communal experience. There’s just something special about being live in a concert,” Travers said. “There’s just a chemistry you get when something is live.

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