Whidbey Island Orchestra goes pop

— Created February 21, 2024 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Ahh, spring is in the air and the energy it brings with it can put a bounce in one’s step and a song in one’s heart.

For Whidbey Island Orchestra, spring also brings the group’s annual salute to popular music, which is sure to have audiences tapping their toes and humming some tunes. Pop Goes the Symphony!, as WIO’s program is called, will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 2 at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley and at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 3 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. Tickets to the March 2 concert are available at wicaonline.org. The March 3 concert is free, but donations are gratefully accepted.

“WIO always presents a popular music concert of some type in early spring,” shared Cynthia Morrow, WIO executive director and principal conductor. “In previous years, we’ve spotlighted The Beatles, Broadway, classic rock, and jazz. This year, though, we are doing a true Pops concert in the style of the Boston Pops. This means we’re featuring popular music from many different countries, eras, styles, films, Broadway shows, operas and contemporary recording artists. There’s going to be something for everyone.”

Pops concerts originated in the 1960s, according to Morrow, and have become true crowd pleasers.

“They are enjoyed by audiences of all ages because they are light-hearted and varied,” she said. “In keeping with this tradition, our orchestra performs a mix of full orchestral pieces with brass and woodwinds, some pieces with just strings, and we even have our newest chamber orchestra, ‘Skylark,’ featuring two different violin soloists, our concertmaster Jennifer Ruthensteiner on John Williams’ movie score, ‘Themes From Memoirs Of A Geisha,’ and another first violinist, Brigitte Tennis, bringing to life the beloved and passionate ‘Jalousie Tango.’”

With so much music to choose from, Morrow said making the final selections for the program takes a lot of thought.

“Choosing the music for a Pops Concert is a balancing act between fast and slow, humorous and heartfelt, old and new, and always with an international flair,” she said. “We’ve included music that represents Spain, France, Mexico, South America, Russia, pioneer America as it was in 1849, the world of Hollywood cartoons, and a number of operas and Broadway shows. We’ve added hits by Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.”

One surprising thing Morrow discovered in planning this program is how the music of the countries represented is often written by people from different countries.

“The ‘Habañera’ from Carmen was composed by Bizet, a Frenchman. ‘Capriccio Español’ was composed by Rimsky-Korskov, a Russian, while the American jazz-inspired ‘Waltz No. 2’ was written by another Russian, Shostakovich,” she shared. “The ‘Can Can,‘ which we think of as quintessentially French, was actually written by Offenbach, a German-born Jew who eventually moved to France. Dvorak, a visiting Czech composer, gave us the glorious ‘New World Symphony’ as his impression of America as it existed out West at the time of the Gold Rush. His themes for this and other works, such as his ‘American Quartet,’ are richly flavored by slave spirituals, indigenous rhythms and melodies that would have been otherwise lost, as Native American culture was being suppressed, and the songs the new settlers brought with them across the plains, such as ‘My Darling Clementine.’

Photo Courtesy of Whidbey Island Orchestra
The chamber orchestra, Skylark, part of Whidbey Island Orchestra, will be featured in the group’s upcoming Pop Goes the Symphony! program March 2 and 3.

“One of the medleys we’re playing in this concert is ‘Mexicano,’ an authentic collection of traditional dances and folk songs that have been artfully arranged for orchestra by Robert Bauernschmidt, an American. And so it goes,” Morrow continued. “Is this the dreaded ‘cultural appropriation’ that has become such a crippling force in the arts today, or are these works the result of inspiration in one of its greatest forms? A Pops Concert is the perfect place to explore the musical blending and sharing that makes certain pieces enduringly popular with the music-loving public.”

Whidbey Island Orchestra is a nonprofit organization, with members ranging in age from 11 to 86 and with experience ranging from “enthusiastic amateurs,” as Morrow puts it, to professional musicians. WIO’s youth program provides scholarships annually to young members, so no child under 18 ever pays to play with the group.

“Whidbey Island Orchestra remains a true cultural gem on the island, primarily South Whidbey,” said Morrow. “We are a pay-to-play orchestra, but our fees are modest, and money is never an obstacle to belonging. Every youth member is seated next to an adult who models protocol and is there to explain and assist them as they tackle the music. We have doctors, attorneys, farmers, teachers, and every aspect of life in our community. We welcome anyone with an orchestral instrument who is at least an intermediate player and who seeks to make music with others. We are, in essence, a teaching orchestra and a fun, collaborative group. We are certainly helped by the generosity of community donations.”

WIO rehearses regularly at Island Church in Langley and performs regularly at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley, Island Church and at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. WIO’s chamber orchestra, Skylark, has also been performing for special events at Useless Bay Golf and Country Club, which Morrow said has expanded its audience even more.

“Playing at WICA is always a great experience for us because it’s a beautiful setting and brings a discerning audience to our concerts,” Morrow said. “Management has been supportive and enthusiastic. We also enjoy performing and rehearsing at Island Church in Langley and have been welcomed at Trinity Lutheran in Freeland for every concert program we do during our season, which enables us to provide free concerts for the community four times a year. Community support is everything to a group such as ours.”

Following the March 2 and 3 Pop Goes the Symphony! concerts, Whidbey Island Orchestra will present its annual Mother’s Day Concert, which features solos by young members of the group as well as showcasing the orchestra’s versatility with classical works. Learn more about WIO by visiting whidbeyorchestras.org.