The Walla Walla Symphony holds its first concert of 2009-10 season

caitlinhardee

The 102-year-old Walla Walla Symphony, one of the small town’s big claims to fame, opened its 2009-2010 season this past Tuesday, Oct. 13, in Cordiner Hall with a program including works of Rossini, Chopin and Schumann. The symphony  is working this season, as ever, toward its goal of musically engaging the Walla Walla community. Michael Wenberg, the Symphony’s CEO, spoke enthusiastically about the symphony and its effect on the community.

“It gives a great place for local musicians to play. It is a professional orchestra, we pay all the musicians, and we have musicians coming down from Spokane and other places, who come down here specifically to play with the orchestra,” said Wenberg. “In terms of impacting the community, it gives a great opportunity for kids to see teachers and parents up onstage playing this really cool music. Local businesses tout the symphony as one of the cool things about Walla Walla. It’s not just this dinky podunk town.”

Despite this, the symphony still has to draw principle players from the surrounding cities such as Spokane,  the Tri-Cities, Portland and Seattle. Otherwise, approximately 80 percent of the musicians are from Walla Walla itself.

Wenberg cites the presence of the symphony as one of the aspects of Walla Walla that drew him and his wife here in the first place. He also sees this tendency on a larger scale, as the symphony attracts much of the older, retired population in the area. With Walla Walla’s vineyards, small art galleries and cultural attractions like the symphony, it stands out from less culturally diverse communities in the area. The symphony has had long years to gain its reputation as the longest-running symphony west of the Mississippi.

“The little catch-phrase is ‘continuously operated,'” said  Wenberg. “Those sneaky people in Seattle are maybe a little older, but we didn’t stop during the Depression.”

Development Associate Lacey Perry, who was crucial in developing the symphony’s youth orchestra last fall, spoke about the difficulty of getting local youth interested in symphony events. Most of the symphony’s patrons are women of a forty-five and older age demographic, she said. As part of the symphony’s marketing campaign, she is working to utilize social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to generate greater youth interest.

“I feel that a lot of the people who are interested in the symphony now try and instill that within their kids, and the music majors from the university and Whitman take advantage of the tickets that are provided to them, so we do see quite a few people in there who are younger, but it’s still hard,” said Perry.

Despite the higher age of most patrons, the symphony has had some success in engaging younger audiences and musicians, even offering opportunities for student musicians to get directly involved.

Whitman junior Geneva Faulkner spoke about her involvement in the symphony as a violinist.

“I first got involved with the symphony because I really wanted a different experience playing in a symphony,” said Faulkner. “I’d never played with people older than me, so the Walla Walla Symphony was a great opportunity to play with community members.”

The chance to play with older, more experienced musicians can provide a young musician a very different experience from the typical school or youth orchestra. While the skill level could be intimidating to young musicians, it offers distinct advantages.

“I think my favorite part is going to rehearsal when everyone’s there, for the dress rehearsal, and you start playing and it sounds good already,” said Faulkner.

Such a high level of competence demands time commitment, but in the symphony such commitment becomes highly individualistic. The schedule alternates between single weeks of intense, consuming group rehearsal before concerts and multiple weeks between the six or seven concerts per season when the symphony doesn’t meet. Both Faulkner and Whitman Director of Jazz Studies David Glenn affirmed the rigor during those periods of rehearsal.

Glenn, who plays trombone and composes for the symphony, spoke to the challenges of scheduling symphony rehearsals with his teaching ensembles.

“Most of the time there’s no impact, but when the concerts happen, it eats up a whole Sunday, a Monday night, a Tuesday. That can be kind of a rough week. But it’s worth it. I also consider it a bit of my civic duty. Part of my job here is to make sure that I help with town-gown relations, to help solidify ties with the community,” said Glenn.

The next regular season concert, scheduled for Dec. 15, includes Mozart, Blake and a medley of seasonal music, featuring a youth chorus composed of students from local elementary schools.