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December 14, 2007

Excellence out West, Part 2: The Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra

In my last blog I wrote about a weekend visit to the Boise Philharmonic and the Walla Walla Symphony, and focused on the Boise part of that trip. This week, on to Walla Walla, Washington. In Walla Walla, I did not get to hear a full concert by the orchestra; my schedule made that impossible, so I heard a Sunday afternoon family concert instead. And only a smaller core of the orchestra performed at this. Since about half the musicians live in Walla Walla, and the other half are "imported," for the most part the group I heard were the residents. So much was impressive - the fact that the family concert consisted of two new works, one especially written for this event (and concurrent school concerts). The Three Legged Monster by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni has been played much in Europe, but I have never encountered it. It is a wonderful, witty, terrifically crafted alternative to The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. The second piece was commissioned for these concerts (imagine that). Gwyneth Walker's Voices in Song, commissioned for the orchestra's centennial, incorporated a fine local children's chorus. And the orchestra, once again, played terrifically under Music Director Jaacov Bergman, especially considering they had had to learn both pieces...

But what was also exciting about the Walla Walla Symphony was its good health and its history. This orchestra, in a city that today has a population of about 30,000 and a metropolitan area of about 50,000, is celebrating its centennial - one hundred uninterrupted years of serving its community and calls itself the oldest continuously existing orchestra west of the Mississippi. In this tiny town! Who'da thunk it? And with an endowment of more than four times the size of its roughly $500,000 annual budget, it is an orchestra in terrific health.

This is also an orchestra that has given real thought to its role in the community. Prior to the family concert the musicians were in the lobby of the hall operating an instrument petting zoo. It was heartwarming to see young kids trying out a double bass (often three times the size of the youngster!), or a violin or clarinet. As you might expect, the biggest waiting line was in front of the percussion instruments. But the Walla Walla Symphony also has something I had not encountered before: an instrument "lending library." They have encouraged community members to donate old, no-longer-used instruments, and the Walla Walla Symphony lends them out on a needs basis to youngsters from families that could not afford to rent or purchase them. What a great service - one more way for an orchestra can be a true community resource.

This is also an orchestra wrestling with the subject of governance - not because they have problems, but because their board is fascinated with the subject, and is committed to finding governance model that works for them. It is inspiring, in fact, to meet with a board that takes the subject of governance as seriously as this one does, and that is willing to devote time and energy exploring it.

The day spent with the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra, and the preceding day spent with the Boise Philharmonic, served once again to renew my sense that orchestral life in America is alive and well, and far more vital and varied than is known by those who aren't fortunate enough to travel around and experience its scope.

Posted by hfogel at December 14, 2007 9:39 AM

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I have been following your blog for a while now..your genuine excitment and enjoyment of these smaller city orchestras is truly contagious. Makes me want to jump on a plane and attend a few of their concerts. Keep up your support of these groups...and keep us posted.....

Thank you, Alan, for your comment. One of the purposes of this blog is to attempt to convey to people who care about symphonic music that there is, in fact, good music being performed on a high level in communities of all sizes throughout the United States. Sadly, it is far more often that the big, "international" orchestras in major cities, with a long history of recording and touring, are known. But people who may happily buy recordings of the Slovak Radio Orchestra, or the Bamberg Symphony, or similar orchestras in Europe, know nothing about comparable orchestras in small and mid-sized U.S. cities. It is my hope that I can, in at least one small way, get the word out that a very high level of orchestral performance exists all over this country.


Posted by: Alan Orloff at December 20, 2007 4:24 PM

Thank you for your kind comments, Henry. Delightful to have you in town! We'll have to invite you back when the weather is a bit better.

Posted by: Michael Wenberg at January 18, 2008 2:47 PM