I’ve been fascinated by classical music ever since I heard my first Mozart as a teen—Eine kleine Nachtmusik. I was blown away by the idea that one person could not only compose a moving piece for more than 20 instruments playing simultaneously, but that the universal language of music could be adored around the world, transcending differences in culture, race and religion with lasting popularity since the 1780s. That’s why I’m thankful to have Whatcom Symphony Orchestra (WSO) in my community. Now in their 43rd season, WSO’s regular performances, world-renowned special guests, family-friendly options, and educational outreach make classical music approachable to literally everyone.
I had the pleasure of speaking with WSO Executive Director Gail Ridenour and External Relations Manager Karen Bailor about their programs and the coming season.
Planning Your Classical Music Visit
WSO offers six or seven major performances each year. But each is just one piece of a full-weekend classical music experience. In addition to the main concert performance, each weekend (except for the Holiday Concert) includes the option of a pre-performance At-Home dinner, the family-friendly dress rehearsal, a pre-concert lecture and a post-concert reception.
Most WSO performances are on the Mainstage at the historic (and luxe) Mount Baker Theatre. I’ve had the pleasure of writing many articles about the history and shows of this beautifully-restored theater. I love the luxurious mix of design styles: French Baroque, High Gothic, Moroccan, Mediterranean, Spanish Gothic, Hindu, Babylonian, Aztec, Mayan, Orientalist, Italian Renaissance and Egyptian Revival.
Every visit feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience so it is a fitting venue to see a full orchestra in all its power performing lasting classical music treasures. Concert tickets start at just $15. At least half of the concerts sold out the 1500+ seat venue, so reserve your tickets in advance.
Usually the night before the performance, WSO holds an intimate dinner for 10 to 20 guests where you’ll get the rare and special opportunity to meet and sup with the guest soloists. Dinner is usually followed by a solo performance. These dinners are fundraisers with scrumptious, expertly-prepared food and drink, like-minded classical music enthusiasts, and exclusive access to the music director and internationally-renowned visiting performers. I’m told that at a recent dinner, guests learned about the performer’s Stradivarius. These dinners deepen the appreciation of the next day’s concert and guarantee a memorable VIP experience. You can reserve your dinner tickets in advance by calling the WSO office.
Relaxed, Family-Friendly Dress Rehearsals
WSO also offers opportunities that encourage attendance for everyone including families, people with disabilities and those without funds for a Mainstage ticket. “We are really trying to make it accessible for the next generation and bring the wonderful world of music to everyone,” notes Ridenour.
Classical Kids Program members can attend dress rehearsal the day before each performance for free with their parents. Families can be exposed to and appreciate world-class classical music performances without the worry of a social faux pas when their toddler needs to dance in the aisle or their 8-year-old can’t wait to ask a question about their new favorite instrument.
When kids under 12 are ready for a concert performance, their ticket is free with a ticketed adult. Their Take-a-Teen Program also allows teenagers to attend main performances for free with a ticketed adult. Their Student Rush Program offers college students with I.D. a ticket for just $8.
At 2:15 on the day of the performance, Western Washington University (WWU) Assistant Professor and Director of Orchestral Studies Dr. Ryan Dudenbostel gives a free, lively interactive presentation of the history and analysis of the pieces that will be presented. He lets you know what to expect, what to listen for later that night and a deeper appreciation for the material.
The Classical Kids Program (annual $25 for the first family member, $5 for each additional child) runs concurrently, presenting similar information but designed for children under 12. The events include hands-on activities and a snacks to make it a fun, positive experience.
Following most concerts, donors above a certain level are invited to attend a reception where you can meet the featured artist while enjoying food and wine in the Mount Baker Theatre’s Walton Theatre.
Where to Stay
The Chrysalis Inn and Spa offers a Sunday at the Symphony Vacation Package that includes $10 off A-section tickets and a discount on the standard room rate.
A Rich History
WSO was founded in 1975 with a small group of local musicians. Over time, the organization has grown steadily, now employing two full-time and two part-time employees.
Made up of more than 80 devoted core local musicians performing alongside world-renowned visiting soloists, WSO is truly a community-based orchestra. Although a few principal positions receive small stipends, most are volunteers who are also professional and semi-professional musicians, school teachers, private music instructors, and university professors that are passionate about their music. Some of the musicians are so supportive of the program that they donate their stipend.
WSO is a 501(c)3 nonprofit supported by ticket sales, community support through private donations, the City and County, and grants.
2018-2019 Season Highlights
Music director Yaniv Attar is part of the genius behind WSO. He is the First Prize Winner of the Duna Szimfonikus Conducting Competition Budapest, multiple recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Foundation Award, and the 2009 Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation Award. Attar is the Music Director of the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra, the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra, and Artistic Partner with Northwest Sinfonietta. I also had the pleasure of seeing him be awarded a 2018 Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award.
WSO is known for bringing in some of the best guest solo artists from around the world. That feat is accomplished by a group effort and long-term planning by Ridenour, Attar and WSO musicians. Many soloists return year after year.
Press Play! Video Games with the Symphony
October 15, 2018
As part of Mount Baker Theatre’s educational program, this concert will be attended by multiple schools. Anyone can attend for just $6. Featuring music from popular video games, this is an opportunity to engage students, introduce them to the orchestra and explore careers in music and technology. Students will also learn about the history of music in video games. From Tetris to Angry Birds to Minecraft, they’ll explore video game music from past to present. Many come from arrangements by the London Philharmonic. Plus, the present hints at the past. Many video game composers are inspired by and reference the great orchestral composers of the past like Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky.
My teen boys will love this!
Harmony in Discord Series Featuring Clive Greensmith
November 18, 2018
This series revives music created by composers who lived under Nazi oppression and were killed in the Holocaust. WSO is the only orchestra in the nation that does this series. Many of the pieces from that time were lost forever, but this series shares some of the pieces that remain. “We are bringing new life to this music and finding the beauty, and the inspiration and the power in something that was created under these dire circumstances,” explains Ridenour.
This show will mark the U.S. premiere of the recently reconstructed Cello Concerto by composer and Jewish virtuoso cellist Pál Hermann. He was captured in France in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. The reconstructed work was realized by Italian composer Fabio Conti who will be in attendance.
Keep your eyes peeled during the show. A film crew will be in the wings to capture the premiere for a documentary being made about Hermann’s life.
Viktor Ullmann’s Seventh Piano Sonata, Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Theme will close the concert. The piece was composed from inside the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp (known also as Terezín) after he was deported from Prague in 1942.
The At-Home dinner for this performance will include the soloist, Clive Greensmith on cello, now living in LA and a former member of the Tokyo String Quartet. He’ll be joined by the grandson of the original composer, Hermann, as well as Conti.
“As a musician as I’ve played some of these works, it is amazing how beautiful and joyful this music is. I’ve been to some of the concentration camps and the feeling there was so oppressive and then to listen to this music that came out of it,” adds Ridenour. “The human spirit just soars over it all and that is a powerful thing featured in the music.”
Holiday Concert Featuring Dr. Ryan Dudenbostel
December 16, 2018
This family-focused program will include a sing-along of some of your holiday favorites with choirs from Bellingham’s Lowell, Geneva and Happy Valley Elementary Schools. You can expect music from A White Christmas sung by duets and trios made up of WWU Professors and Seattle-based performers. The featured artist is conductor Dr. Dudenbostel. An a cappella candle light performance by the orchestra of Silent Night is bound to make lasting memories. A Hanukkah medley and Sleigh Ride are also planned. Free cocoa with marshmallows, candy canes and violin solos during intermission will keep the kids singing long into the night.
Happy Birthday Mozart! Featuring Martin Kuuskmann
January 27, 2019
Held on what will be Mozart’s 263rd birthday, this concert will open with Symphony No. 2 by Chevalier de Saint-Georges who was a contemporary of Mozart. Some have cited his compositions as possible sources of inspiration for Mozart’s own works. Featured two-time Grammy-nominated bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann will then perform Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto. The evening will close with Jupiter Symphony, one of Mozart’s more popular pieces.
Humor in Music Featuring Colin Carr
March 3, 2019
Mixing up the format a little, award-winning British cellist Colin Carr will begin the evening with a solo performance of Bach’s Cello Suite. That will be followed by Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C with the full orchestra. Interestingly, although composed around 1761, the concerto was presumed lost until it was discovered again in 1961 at the Prague National Museum. The evening will close with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. I’m told you can hear sarcasm and wit in Shostakovich’s music.
Made in America Featuring Benjamin Hochman
May 19, 2019
This concert is a collection of pieces by composers who visited the U.S. and were so inspired by it that they wrote a piece about it. You’ll feel the inspiration of Benjamin Britten’s American Overture. Pianist Benjamin Hochman will delight with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The evening will close with “New World” Symphony by Antonín Dvořák. If you’re paying attention you’ll hear bird calls and hints of what must have inspired the opening theme of the movie Jaws.
Classical on Tap has brought quartets and quintets to local breweries for free. At these events you can expect a chance to win concert tickets, learn more about the music, play some trivia and participate in a Q and A with the musicians. Check their website as summer approaches.
WSO’s mission includes sharing classical music with all of Whatcom County. To achieve that goal, WSO has a number of additional programs designed to reach all walks of life. Their multi-pronged Educational Youth Engagement Program brings music performance into public, private and home school communities throughout the county reaching students of all ages. Their Music in the Schools and Beethoven in the Schools Programs focus on elementary-school aged students, bringing free performances to all 32 Whatcom County elementary schools this year. Their smaller Baroque Chamber Orchestra also performs at various locations in Whatcom County as a way to make the music accessible to all.
I love that there are so many free and affordable opportunities to celebrate classical music and world-class performers in the Bellingham community. Be sure to plan your trip and get your tickets in advance. You can check out my other Insider Blogs about music, theatre and the arts on the Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism website.