Puget Soundings: Bainbridge Sings a Cavatina?

Bainbridge Island is in the Puget Sound a 30-minute ferry ride from Seattle. These ferries are not quaint little crafts, but monster vessels that can hold more than 2,000 passengers and are often crammed to capacity with some 200 cars.

Named after the region’s Native peoples and places, these steel behemoths lumber through the water at an immense cost in carbon and spewing noise below the surface.

Still, the scenery from the decks is spectacular. On a clear day Mount Rainier towers and spreads to the south. A hundred miles to the north along the peaks of the Cascade Range can be seen the white pyramid of another of the state’s great volcanoes, Mt. Baker. Like Puget Sound, this mountain was named after one of the officers on the HMS Discovery commanded by the Royal Navy’s George Vancouver, who sailed through this inland sea in the spring of 1792, christening the country as he went.

Seattle’s corporate towers rise up from the Sound, the mountains as their backdrop. The region is an engine of the global economy, home to Amazon, Microsoft, Costco, Starbucks, their various headquarters pushed into and alongside mountains and lakes that were until recently wild places.

The views from the ferry in the opposite direction are no less dramatic. Bainbridge seems to spread itself at the feet of the jagged façade of the Olympic Mountains, twenty-five miles west beyond the Kitsap Peninsula and Hood Canal (named by Vancouver after a British admiral).

Other islands (Whidbey, Vashon—more British sailors) lie to the north and south, their ferries running in parallel to Bainbridge’s. Vancouver thought what became known as Bainbridge Island was merely a peninsula, so the American navy got to name it after one of theirs: William Bainbridge, who commanded the USS Constitution in the War of 1812. We all learned that in school on the island.

The ferries depart from the Colman dock (now undergoing a massive multi-year makeover) on the Seattle waterfront and head directly towards one of Bainbridge’s beaches. Given the whimsical name of Rockaway, this stretch of shoreline is thick with multi-million-dollar houses. Recently carved into the forested bluffs above are large building lots out of which mansions, many built with high-tech money, rise to command panoramic vistas across to Seattle, views that can never be blocked—except periodically by the humongous cruise and cargo ships that now plague the Sound and by the smoke from forest fires increasingly ignored as an everyday fact of the new normal.

As they near the beach the ferries turn sharply to the starboard, skirting Bill Point and cutting the engines as they coast into Eagle Harbor, Wing Point to the north. From above the geography can be made by the mind’s eye to look like America’s national bird in flight.

When I was growing up on the island the Wyckoff Company’s creosote plant stood at the entrance to Eagle Harbor and was still supplying treated pilings to the world. They were also poisoning the waters. The harbor became a Super Fund site in the Reagan Years. Remediation is still underway.

My family’s house was on Old Creosote Hill Road and we often swam in the toxic waters nearby. The exposure to all those heavy metals hasn’t killed me yet. Indeed, I’ve lived long enough to see the factory torn down, and also to see plans, reported on last week in the island’s newspaper, the Bainbridge Review, for a gleaming concert hall to be built next to the ferry terminal and directly across from where the creosote plant once was. This is to be a structure of light and air and living greenery—in contrast to the black and deadly goo put into logs and into the water by the vanished Wyckoff eyesore.

The concert hall project is called Cavatina and is backed by a Polish real estate conglomerate of that name, one of the biggest developers in Europe. It is unclear from the story how Cavatina set its sights—and potentially, its site—on Bainbridge.

A Bainbridge classmates quipped that Cavatina sounded like penis enlargement medication, though it is a musical term, taken from opera—a shortened aria, not a lengthened one. Beethoven called a transcendent, singing movement from one his last string quartets (op. 130) a Cavatina. It is the kind of intimate, expressive piece that the new concert hall would welcome, perfect for the dedication concert: music of emotion and refinement, the best of bourgeois culture, full of its ideals of striving, but also thankful for the gifts drawn from nature and commerce.

The proposed building would host great string quartets from Seattle and the world but also orchestras—that symbol of urban musical prestige, from Vienna’s Ringstraße and perhaps even to the shores of Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The upscale village of Winslow adjacent to the ferry spreads along what is now a tony boulevard dense with lattes, fine dining, art, and knickknacks. There is a local grocery store, opened by Japanese Americans after they had returned from imprisonment in Manzanar: Town & Country Thriftway. We called it just Thriftway in my youth. Thrifty is now the last thing this island is.

The concert hall provides still more of the finer things that islanders might be persuaded to believe that they richly deserve, not just cappuccino but also high musical culture.

The Cavatina plan calls for a greening of the acres of parking lots around the ferry terminal. The architects’ pitch hits all the notes of the liberal litany: it’s good for foot traffic and shopping; the structure is sustainable, catches rainwater and even purifies it; the project returns the paved-over desert to its evergreen origins, though this supposed state of nature has a hotel and shops and the concert hall itself. There will be an outdoor amphitheater and affordable housing—an elastic concept in the age of super-rich, super-poor Seattle. In a post-pandemic period when concert-going, increasingly practiced by an aging demographic, seems to be in decline, it’s full steam ahead.

The design embraces the flow and contour of the modern, the muted exuberance of architecture that seems almost to defy the forces of gravity and nature, even if it claims to be of a piece with the natural world. The concert hall and its campus will be a gift for all islanders, we learn from Matthew Coates, the local architect who appears first in the video and whose office is adjacent to the site. Members of the Epstein firm of Chicago are the main architects and designers: this outfit has done airports, convention centers, and “corporate interiors.” For all the nods to environmental integration, the Cavatina Concert Hall in its still-virtual state projects the cool, monied bleakness of these kinds of structures and spaces.

Anything is better than a parking lot. Music and people and views across water to an emerald city and great mountains beyond; concerts arrived at by boat: one should believe in these things.

So why am dubious about this project? Much of my skepticism at, even melancholy over, this video doubtless results from nostalgia for a once mostly rural Bainbridge that wasn’t all shining steel and glass and too much money.

All conscience-calming bells and whistles sounded by the architects shouldn’t distract from the real score. This isn’t a sustainable project, it’s a project about prestige. Shipping musicians and materials and people around the Sound and around world is not a return to nature. Reforest the parking lot, but don’t throw up this high tech 500-seat nest. Use the buildings that are already on the island: the upscale steel-and-glass schools, the churches, and the Performing Arts Center built not so long ago in contemporary Northwest style. Put the orchestra on the car deck of a repurposed ferry and have the audience spread out on the dock.

When I saw the Cavatina video I thought of Debussy’s utopian imagining of music without walls, “flowing in broad lines both from the orchestra and voices. floating from the tops of the trees, through the light of the open air; any harmonic progression that sounded stifled within the confines of a concert hall would take on new significance … The mysterious collaboration between air currents, the movement of leaves, and the perfume of flowers would combine together in such a natural marriage with the music that it would seem to live in each of them.”

But we live in an age of haze seen through glass, of music heard amongst smoke and mirrors.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com