"My mother was my first violin teacher," remembers Grant Donnellan, professor of violin at Western Washington University, "and concertmaster of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra. When I was in middle school, she made me play in the orchestra, with the incentive of dinner at McDonald's after each rehearsal - complete with a hot fudge sundae. She would endure the car ride to rehearsal with four squirrely boys in order to provide a quality orchestral experience for us."
His mother's lessons and bribes paid off, and, in 2006, Grant stepped into her position as concertmaster. "Along the way I became so distracted by the beautiful music we were playing that I stopped thinking about the hot fudge sundae," he said, "And I still have the support of my mother, Joanne Donnellan, who plays with me in the first violin section."
As Whatcom Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, Grant has the leading role among all of the players. "I enter the stage before the conductor and direct everyone in tuning to the oboe," he explains. "During rehearsals, I decide how all of the violins will synchronize their bows or handle a tricky passage, so the sound is consistent." The other string principals work with Grant so that all string instruments play in a similar style. When there is a violin solo in a piece, it is his playing you will hear above the orchestra.
Grant sits just to the left of the conductor, at the front of the 16 musicians known as the "first violins."
A few chairs away, Kathy Diaz is the principal player for the 14 "second violins." "We are second to none!" laughs Kathy, "We may not play the melody as often as the first violins, but our part often includes beautiful harmonies and contrasting rhythms, which we love." Kathy, who teaches orchestra at Whatcom and Shuksan middle schools, has played in the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra for 36 years and is a founding member, along with Joanne Donnellan. Gaye Davis and Karen Visser, recruited by their middle school orchestra teacher Ethel Crook, also played with the orchestra in its founding year of 1975.
The violinists who play alongside Grant and Kathy volunteer their time to rehearse and perform six or more concerts a year. A few are retired, but most have "day jobs." A surprisingly large number have private studios: ten of the 30 violinists teach violin and viola to more than 100 young people in our community. Two players teach music in schools, Krissy Snyder at Ferndale High School and Amie Smit at Lynden Christian Elementary School; while Rosalie Romano and Carla Rutschman are professors at WWU. And, of course, several play in ensembles performing for weddings, parties, shows, and other "paid gigs."
There are some non-teachers too:
Laura Guthridge, daughter of former music director Nick Bussard, runs a business with her husband and Barbara Curtis, retired now from a financial career, volunteers as the orchestra's treasurer. Irene Fadden is retail sales manager at Taylor Shellfish. Past Whatcom Symphony Orchestra librarian Tim Freeman begins his studies of Chinese medicine in May. An architect, and two physicians add to the variety of occupations. Dr. John Tilley speaks for all the violinists, "There are different ways to become a part of your community. Sharing the thing you've loved all your life with your friends and neighbors is one of the best ways."
Some devote time far beyond the rehearsals and performances. Joanne Donnellan helps drive the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra's music education programs. With support from the Lummi Indian Business Council and other organizations and individuals, she schedules wind, brass, string and percussion group presentations for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders across the county. Like his mother, Grant is committed to music education. "One of the things I love best is bringing music to children," Grant says. "I get to dress up as Ludwig von Beethoven and visit more than 1,400 third-graders each year. It's incredibly satisfying to know I may be helping some of those kids take a step into music, maybe even a future concertmaster of the WSO!"
Come watch the violins in action in the last concert of the season on Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 3 p.m. at Mount Baker Theatre. The event features soloist Sharon Isbin, hailed as the reigning diva of the guitar, playing the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. The concert will be conducted by Yaniv Attar, the fourth finalist for Whatcom Symphony Orchestra music director.
ABOUT WINDOW ON MY WORLD
Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is one of a year-long series profiling the musicians of the award-winning Whatcom Symphony Orchestra. Author Mary Passmore has played cello with the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra for 33 years and currently serves on the board of directors and as chair of the Outreach to the Schools committee. A retired elementary classroom teacher, she plays chamber music with friends, seeks adventure through travel with her husband Martin, and visits her children and grandchild in Los Angeles as often as possible.