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News / Life / Clark County Life

Pitch perfect arts: Festival organizer says time is right for Southwest Washington to shine

Vancouver USA Arts & Music Festival features music, dance, visual arts and poetry in and around Esther Short Park

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 27, 2023, 6:04am
10 Photos
Vancouver's own Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra, led by Sammuel Murry-Hawkins.
Vancouver's own Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra, led by Sammuel Murry-Hawkins. (Jessica Heriot Photography) Photo Gallery

Vancouver will try something new in August: a free downtown festival that aims to lift our local arts scene into the national spotlight at last.

“A well-kept secret” is not Igor Shakhman’s preferred description of Southwest Washington’s thriving music and art scene. But that’s how it was summed up in a pre-pandemic regional arts-economy report authored by Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland and a recognized “turnaround expert” for struggling arts organizations.

Shakhman, executive director and principal clarinetist for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, labored during the coronavirus pandemic to keep his organization alive and performing for its dedicated fans. The orchestra even expanded its reach through socially distanced live concerts that streamed from the concert hall to be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, with internet access.

Such strategies are why the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra remained strong and successful despite the pandemic, Shakhman said. The upcoming festival is another recommendation from Kaiser. Embraced by the orchestra and numerous allies, the event aims to boost reach and recognition for the whole local arts community.


What: Vancouver USA Arts & Music Festival

When: Noon to 10 p.m. Aug. 4; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 5; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 6.

Where: In and around Esther Short Park, 605 Esther St., and Officers Row on East Evergreen Boulevard.

Information: View details and schedules at www.vancouverartsandmusicfestival.com

Admission: Free.

Partial listing of entertainers and stages:

Esther Short Park Main Stage: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra with Time for Three on Friday, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers on Saturday and pianist Orli Shaham on Sunday.

Esther Short Park Stage on the Bricks: poetry by Arianne True; IXIC Aztec Dancers; Vancouver Ballet Folklorico; Odissi Dance Company; native flute and guitar music by Dr. Sherrie Davis.

7th Street Community Stage: Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra; Darling Radio; Raven Fables; Festival Brass Band; Junior Symphony of Vancouver; Rodney Mason’s History of Hip Hop; The Bylines; Darka Dusty and the Borscht Beatniks; The Departures; DC Malone and the Jones.

Kiggins Theatre: Film screening and conversation with TV star Lawrence Gilliard Jr. at 1 p.m. Saturday (tickets at www.kigginstheatre.com).

Officers Row: Silent classic comedy with live chamber group accompaniment at 9 p.m. Friday.

Hilton hotel and City Hall plaza: National, regional and 3D art exhibits.

“We want to unite the arts and show how vibrant the arts scene is,” Shakhman said. “We want to establish and assert that the arts in Southwest Washington are something to talk about.”

Set for Aug. 4 though 6, the inaugural Vancouver USA Arts & Music Festival intends to put this city on the national arts map through an entirely free extravaganza of music, dance, visual arts and poetry in and around Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver:

  • Friday afternoon will start with a welcome and reading by Washington Poet Laureate Arianne True. Dance and small-group performances will warm things up for an evening concert in Esther Short Park by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra led by Maestro Salvador Brotons. The concert will also feature the Grammy-winning classical-crossover string trio Time for Three, contributing some surprising string adaptations of such popular tunes as the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and even Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”

After that, outdoors on the lawn alongside Officers Row, a small group of orchestra musicians will accompany an outdoor screening of a silent Buster Keaton comedy classic.

  • Saturday will feature dance performances; musicians and groups on small stages in and near Esther Short Park playing everything from jazz to hip-hop to Ukrainian folk-pop; and a conversation at the Kiggins Theatre with TV star and orchestra ally Lawrence Gilliard Jr. from “The Wire” and “Walking Dead.” (This is the one event that will be ticketed.) The theme of Saturday night’s free orchestra concert in the park is American composers, and it will feature works by Samuel Barber, Charles Ives and contemporary Black composer Adolphus Hailstork before wrapping up with George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” Visiting Maestro Gerard Schwartz will conduct the Saturday concert, joined by world-renowned violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.
  • Sunday morning delivers dance and a native flute-and-guitar performance. A final free orchestra concert at 3 p.m. will feature Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and American classics, including Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Schwartz will again conduct the orchestra, this time joined by renowned pianist Orli Shaham.

Shakhman said world-class talents on local stages, all for free, will make the Vancouver Music and Arts Festival a rare opportunity.

“If you don’t come see what’s happening here, you are missing out on something very special,” he said.

Time is right

Encouraged to think big by the Kaiser report and by its Vancouver sponsor, the Murdock Charitable Trust, Shakhman started envisioning an event that would focus broad attention on the Southwest Washington arts scene a few years ago. When he brought the idea to Vancouver government officials and to the city’s standing Culture, Arts and Heritage Commission, all came right on board, he said.

“It took very little convincing. The committee told me it was serendipitous,” Shakhman said.

That’s because the committee itself had been contemplating the same idea — a local, comprehensive, attention-getting arts festival.

Eventually Shakhman applied for and won a $600,000 grant from Murdock for three years of arts festivals downtown, presented and hosted by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. This year’s $200,000 is dedicated to orchestra musicians and guests — travel, rehearsal, storage, grand piano rental, Esther Short Park stage expansion and sound crew — as well as festival marketing. (Shakhman said $200,000 goes a long way but doesn’t quite cover all these needs, so more fundraising has also been necessary.)

The city of Vancouver has contributed money and in-kind support including exhibit spaces, local artists’ fees, smaller stages, security and waste management, Shakhman said. The nonprofit Columbia Arts Network has taken the lead on visual-arts activities, including juried national and regional art exhibits outside City Hall on 6th Street, opposite the park, and at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, Heritage Room “C.”

Organizers decided to make the event completely free.

“Everyone should have access to the arts,” Shakhman said. “Let’s make this three days of immersion and celebration of the arts, and nobody has to worry about buying tickets.”

In addition to the city, Murdock and the Columbia Arts Network, Shakhman said major thanks are due numerous sponsors for making the free festival possible, including the Kuni Foundation, the Hilton Vancouver Washington, AC Hotels by Marriott and many more.

Shakhman said he’s hoping this year’s inaugural Vancouver Music and Arts Festival energizes lots of curious fans as well as the local, still-untapped philanthropic base that Kaiser’s report underlined. With help, he said, future festivals could be even bigger and better than this one.

“This is the perfect time for this area to bring all the arts together for the first time in history,” he said.