Enjoy sounds of the season with Whidbey Island Orchestra

— Created December 13, 2023 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Whidbey Island Orchestra invites everyone to tune out the hype and tune in for some holly jolly good music at its “A Merry Little Christmas” concerts this weekend.

Programs will be at 7 p.m. Friday at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Island Church in Langley. The concerts are free to attend, but donations are welcome.

There will even be an extra special guest appearance at each concert, which adds an extra touch of holiday magic, according to WIO Executive Director and Conductor, Cynthia Morrow.

“The whole purpose of the Christmas concerts is to get everyone, all ages, all mindsets, in the mood to celebrate this wonderful holiday season, and to set the stage for Santa’s visit at the very end of the program,” she said. “Last year a little girl came up to the podium at the end of the concert with tears in her eyes and whispered in awe, ‘I believe I’ve just seen the real Santa!’  It was worth everything we put into making this holiday event happen every year for that one, perfect moment.”

 Morrow said the key to a fun holiday concert is to provide a little something for everyone, which is reflected in some of the selections to be featured at these weekend performances.

Photo Courtesy of Whidbey Island Orchestra
Cynthia Morrow will conduct Whidbey Island Orchestra at two holiday concerts this weekend – Friday in Freeland and Sunday in Langley. The concerts will feature the full orchestra and includes everything to make it “A Merry Little Christmas.”

 “There are nostalgic classics, such as ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Christmas Waltz,’ ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ and ‘The Christmas Song’ by Mel Tormé,” she described. “The entire string section will perform, for the first time, a rarely heard 16th Century carol, ‘On This Day Everywhere,’ sure to transport our audience to those long-ago Christmases of the European Renaissance. We’re also excited to add some new arrangements to our holiday repertoire, ‘A Vaughn Williams Christmas,’ featuring hauntingly lovely English carols, as well as ‘The German Carol Festival,’ full of the 19th Century songs we’ve all come to know and love, such as ‘O Tannenbaum’ and ‘Silent Night.’”

Before the pandemic, Whidbey Island Orchestra had been doing an audience sing-along, which Morrow said they are happy to bring back this year, along with other surprises.

“We are delighted to have seven talented young dancers from Island Dance Studio in Langley performing ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’ with us,” Morrow said. “Their unique choreography has been created and donated by Daunne Zinger of Luigi Jazz Studio. Daunne is also one of two lucky people whose winning bid at this year’s WIO Gala entitles them to conduct ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ with the orchestra. Daunne will conduct on Sunday at Island Church. Our other lucky winner is well-known singer/songwriter Joann Quintana, who will be leading the orchestra in ‘Rudolph’ on Friday night at Trinity Lutheran.”

For the first time since the pandemic, Whidbey Island Orchestra is back at full capacity.

“We are so delighted to have our brass and woodwind sections back this season after several years during which the COVID pandemic kept us playing with only strings, piano, and percussion,” said Morrow. “WIO’s Horn Trio, consisting of Nancy Happe, Jeff Jacobsen and Dianne Vars, will open the second half of the program with two pieces by Mendelssohn and Mozart. Gabriela Garza, our wonderful guest conductor, and I keep trying to create concert programs that utilize the full-throated sound of the orchestra by choosing pieces that engage every section.”

Photo Courtesy of Whidbey Island Orchestra
A very special guest will make an appearance at the end of each of Whidbey Island Orchestra’s holiday concerts this weekend.

Morrow said something good did spring from the pandemic restrictions of the past few years, and audiences will get to hear that, too.

“Because the strings spent so much time playing together week after week for a few years, it has led to the formation of our new string chamber orchestra, Skylark, consisting of our elite string players, piano, and percussion. Skylark will be featured for the first time in our Christmas concerts, playing a goose-bumpy arrangement of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’ This group has three first violins, three second violins, three violas, four celli, bass, piano and percussion. We specialize in playing string quartets and string orchestra works in a small orchestra format. I conduct and also play violin or viola as needed.”

Whidbey Island Orchestra is a nonprofit, pay-to-play organization made up of amateur local musicians. Planning for programs begins long in advance and requires some finesse.

“Planning programs is a delicate balancing act between fast and slow pieces, keeping a theme in mind while making sure the ensemble, made up of amateur local musicians, can play it comfortably,” described Morrow. “It must challenge us but not be ridiculously difficult because we have four regular programs a year and need time to learn it with weekly rehearsals. Gabriela and I usually plan almost a year ahead in order to be sure of finding appropriate music.

“Although we’re a pay-to-play orchestra, our youth members play for free,” she continued. “We also give youth scholarships every year, mentor and encourage them by placing each young player with an adult member of their section, and when they’re ready, they are invited to perform with the orchestra as soloists. We are a community non-profit, but we truly appreciate every donation, no matter how big or how small, as we try to provide opportunities in the arts for our friends and neighbors who love to play, and to our kids in a school system that no longer supports orchestral music on South Whidbey.”

Learn more about Whidbey Island Orchestra and find out about upcoming performances at whidbeyislandorchestra.org and check out “A Merry Little Christmas” programs this weekend.

Enjoy “Peter and the Wolf” and more Saturday

Saratoga Orchestra of Whidbey Island is offering two-for-one fun this weekend, as it presents its annual community celebration, “A Very Merry Whidbey Christmas,” at 2 p.m. Saturday at Coupeville High School.

Photo Courtesy of Saratoga Orchestra
Anna Edwards will lead Saratoga Orchestra of Whidbey Island in a performance of “Peter and the Wolf” Saturday at 2 p.m. in Coupeville. The concert will also include a community sing-along and special guests, The Shifty Sailors and Troy Chapman and the Hot Club of Troy.

“In 2015, the orchestra began programming ‘Peter and the Wolf’ as part of our annual holiday concerts and it has become somewhat of a tradition,” said Larry Heidel, Saratoga Orchestra’s executive director. “Prior to this, we had presented a sing-along ‘Messiah’ for many years and when we were discussing the program for this year, we said, ‘Why not do both?’  This year’s ‘Messiah’ will be represented by three sing-along choruses, including of course, ‘Hallelujah!’”

All those interested in brushing up on the music and warming up their vocal chords are invited to come early at 1 p.m. for a brief run-through.  Music for the choruses, which include “And the Glory of the Lord,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Hallelujah Chorus,” is available to download at sowhidbey.com.

Saturday’s concert will also include some special guests.

“This year’s guests are the lovable The Shifty Sailors, who are such a delight for the audience,” shared Heidel. “We’re also excited to have the magnificent Troy Chapman and his Django jazz trio, The Hot Club of Troy, join us to put a bit of swing into the program. What’s especially fun is the trio will feature Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews and Keegan Harshman, two musicians that were involved with Saratoga Orchestra when they were local high school students.”

Heidel said orchestra members always look forward to performing this holiday concert.

“We love the community aspect of this concert,” he said. “The program will feature a very eclectic mix of music and have a wide appeal – something for everyone. We are in hopes that lots of families attend to come to experience Karl Olsen telling the story of ‘Peter and the Wolf;’ singers will love the ‘Messiah’ sing-along and jazz lovers will love The Hot Club of Troy putting their spin on tunes from the season.”

Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors/military. Students 17 and younger are free. Tickets may be purchased in advance online at sowhidbey.com or at bayleaf in Coupeville, Click Music in Oak Harbor or Moonraker Books in Langley. Tickets are also available at the door.