If you've ever heard of Musicfest Northwest, you are among the cognoscenti. Festival secretary Shirley Ennis admits, "It's the best-kept secret in Spokane." Chugging along on volunteer power alone, this Spokane event for young musicians and dancers is marking its 60th year this May, making it the longest-lived (as well as the largest) youth performing arts event on the West Coast.
More than 1,600 would-be Van Cliburns and aspiring Yo-Yo Mas from throughout the Northwest are coming to Spokane to compete for scholarships and prestige. (In 1959, an already famous Van Cliburn accompanied his mother, Rildia, to Spokane when she judged piano at the festival.)
Young Artist competitors can win scholarships of $250, and some go on to high-profile careers. If you're a Spokane Symphony fan, you know former Young Artist winner and Concertmaster Kelly Farris. Other former participants include pianist Stephen Drury, mezzo-soprano Linda Adams Caple, tenor Frank Hernandez, pianist Archie Chen, and violinist Jason Moody. Perhaps the most famous Young Artist alum is Spokane native son and 2002 Grammy winner Thomas Hampson. Verne Windham, classical music host at Spokane Public Radio, describes him as "the most famous living baritone." In fact, Hampson was a voice student of Windham's at what was then Fort Wright College in the late 1970s.
All of them owe thanks to Josephine Clark, an influential Spokane piano teacher. In 1945, Clark decided that the way to celebrate the end of World War II and to "promote the arts of peace" was to strike the first notes of the Greater Spokane Music and Allied Arts Festival, as it was more expansively known until 2000.
Bringing the festival into being was no easy matter, but Josephine Clark was a formidable and determined woman.
As the story goes, she bribed Harold Whelan, the conductor of the city's struggling young symphony, with the promise of $100 if he could round up 10 young businessmen who would support a music festival to further the development of Spokane.
One Friday in the spring of 1945, they gathered for lunch at the Crescent tearoom. Upon the arrival of the last businessman, Clark slid the $100 under the table into Whelan's waiting hand, and the Greater Spokane Music and Allied Arts Festival was born.
Clark gave private lessons for decades at her home on East 18th Avenue near Lincoln Park. Even in 1966, at the age of 76, she was still teaching piano.
Former student Doris Pickerell took the first of 10 years of lessons with Clark in 1939 at age 12. She remembers a dynamic woman who was considered the best teacher in Spokane.
"I loved her to death," says Pickerell, but "if you didn't do what she said to do, you were out."
And the Festival was something all of her students had to do.
Mrs. Clark saw the festival as an expression of high ideals, and a vehicle for the cultural betterment of Spokane, particularly its youth.
As she put it in 1966, "Surrounded as we are, especially in the field of music, by day-long hoopla at the lowest end of an art so sublime, this yearly festival is security against inferior living to our young people."
Certainly, the festival bore the stamp of her forceful personality. The May 1949 Festival Bulletin includes these instructions to applying performers: "Please read this bulletin carefully! Each year people write or ask questions, when a careful reading of the bulletin would have saved them the trouble."
Josephine Clark continued to support the festival as an honorary trustee until her death in February 1973. Since the first festival, more than 52,000 young musicians and dancers, from first grade through post-grad, have come to Spokane to compete.
Competition is divided among 10 categories: piano, string, voice, ballet, brass, flute, reed, guitar, organ and percussion. Piano is the monster category, with over nearly a thousand students competing on the instrument.
Strings, which include violin, viola, cello, and bass, are a distant second -- 168 players -- and the 139 singers make up the third-largest category.
The church organ, nearly dropped due to low numbers, is showing signs of a comeback, reflecting a general resurgence of interest in the instrument, says Shirley Ennis.
Categories do come and go as the years roll along. In the early years, church choirs, "civic and school choral groups" and "instrumental ensembles" all had a place. Sometime in the 1950s, the accordion insinuated itself into the sublime festival company.
The guitar, which was classed with the strings for a long while, suffered a short death, but at the request of music teachers, has since been resurrected as a separate category.
Most of the competition will take place at several buildings on the Gonzaga campus, with some activities at the Academy of Dance in Spokane Valley and St. Mark's on Grand Boulevard. In short, it's a community-wide event that makes good things possible for regional youth. Miss Josephine would be right proud.