The Whatcom Symphony Orchestra is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary season. Scott Henderson, former Executive Director of the orchestra, has spent the past three years compiling the vast history of the organization.
Henderson notes that much of the symphony’s growth can be seen through its progressively more focused and sophisticated repertoire and materials. “Many Whatcom Symphony Orchestra players, board members, and staff — past and present — have contributed their personal collections of photos, programs and memorabilia, which were scanned for the digital archives,” he says. “The 40 year’s worth of memorabilia collected also reveals how many of the driving personalities are individuals who have been with the orchestra for many years, and often decades.”
Since the early 1900s, Whatcom County musicians have gathered to perform classical music for the community. In 1913, Mademoiselle Mary Davenport-Engberg conducted the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra. Not long after, in the 1930s, the Bellingham Orchestra, conducted by Albert Bensen, was assembled for local stage productions. And in 1967, Dr. Frank D’Andrea conducted the Western Washington State College Community Orchestra.
Over the course of the past century, music has always found a home in Whatcom County. This tradition continued in the mid-1970s with the formation of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra.
In the fall of 1975, spearheaded by music educators and performers Ethel Crook and Claire vg Thomas, fifty performers — mostly high school and college instrumentalists, along with local teachers and college instructors — came together under the leadership of conductor Franklin J. Nielsen. The focus quickly changed from training ensembles for high school musicians to maintaining an orchestra that could play during Whatcom County area bicentennial events in 1976. The group’s founding name became the Whatcom County Bicentennial Community Orchestra.
For its second season in 1976 – 1977, the orchestra changed its name to the Whatcom Community Orchestra, a name it kept for nearly a decade, until officially changing it to the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra during the 1985 – 1986 season.
Throughout this initial period, performances were staged in venues throughout the county, including school auditoriums, Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College. However, in 1991 the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra was designated “the resident orchestra of the Mount Baker Theatre,” and the orchestra performed its first season at the theatre in 1992 – 1993.
The earliest musician rosters date back to 1977. Since then, more than 650 individuals have played in the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra. The symphony is currently comprised of more than 80 volunteer musicians, including local music teachers, active and retired professional musicians, and talented community members from all backgrounds.
Honoring the original intention of Thomas and Cook, the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra maintains a healthy educational Outreach Program, Beethoven in the Schools. . Concertmaster Grant Donnellan, dressed as Beethoven, visits kindergarten, 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd- grade classrooms around Whatcom County, sharing the joy of making music. In 2000, Whatcom Symphony Orchestra launched its “Musicians in the Schools” initiative for grades four and five, with string, woodwind, brass and percussion ensembles performing to more than 900 children in public and private Whatcom County schools.
With the purchase of an adult ticket to select Whatcom Symphony Orchestra performances, a free ticket is available for students ages 12 to 17 in the “Take a Teen” program, designed to inspire musicians of the future. This special offer is valid for season 2016 concerts on March 6 and May 1.
Over the past four decades, the Whatcom Symphony has grown into a nationally recognized orchestra, receiving accolades from audiences, critics and national and international artists. Leading the symphony from the podium over the years has been an esteemed roster of conductors. When the first conductor, Franklin Nielsen stepped down from the podium in 1979, Nicholas Bussard assumed the position, remaining as Music Director for the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra for more than 15 years.
In 1993, Western Washington University professor Dr. Roger Briggs was named associate conductor. He later became the orchestra’s artistic director, upon the retirement of Mr. Bussard. During Maestro Briggs’ tenure, the orchestra grew in size and stature, attracting world-class guest artists and winning national awards. Maestro Briggs stepped down in June 2012. After an intense year of guest conductor auditions, Maestro Yaniv Attar stepped up to the podium for 2013 – 2014 season.
Maestro Attar’s goal for each concert and for the future of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra is to engage the audience at every opportunity. Audiences have come to look forward to his brief, yet entertaining and enlightening talks from the podium during concerts. His programming provides listeners with a careful balance of familiar and unfamiliar compositions to introduce different composers’ voices, while also putting forth music for which the audience already has a deep appreciation. Attar doesn’t want to limit the symphony’s presentation of music to only pieces that were written 200 years ago. He hopes to continue to introduce new and unfamiliar composers and provide a space for new works to be showcased.
The Whatcom Symphony Orchestra is greatly appreciative of the community support of its local players, many of whom make their living in the field of music. The success of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra is due largely in part to the passionate volunteers who support it.
Henderson says, “This unique group fearlessly reinvents itself in the service of its music and its audiences.” Concertgoers will find varied programs available for the remainder of this season. In February 2016, the orchestra is partnering with the Seattle Rock Orchestra for the second year in a row and presenting the Magic of Motown. In March, the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra presents the first in its multiyear initiative Harmony from Discord: Music from Oppression.
If you are not sure whether you like classical music, try Viva el Tango or The Emperor and the Titan. Ticket prices start at $14, making Whatcom Symphony Orchestra a very affordable afternoon outing. For more information about the symphony, to purchase season tickets or make a donation, visit Whatcom Symphony Orchestra online.