Voices of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra: Viola, cello and bass players

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 20, 2013 

String section of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra plays during a practice session.

JUDY OSMONDSON — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

"I started playing viola when I was 10 because my parents wouldn't buy me a harp!" jokes Morgan Schwab, principal violist with the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra.

Called "Schwabie" by her adoring students, Morgan teaches band, orchestra, guitar and drama at Fairhaven Middle School. She also conducts a youth orchestra, working with North Sound Music Director Grant Donnellan, Whatcom Symphony concertmaster.

Betsy Stuen-Walker, who shares a stand with Morgan, says, "I always loved the rich tone of the viola, so it was my first choice when I began taking lessons at age 8." Suzuki teacher extraordinaire, Betsy has 43 students in her private studio and serves as a Suzuki teacher trainer all around the U.S. and Europe.

Violists have a variety of "day jobs" and interests:

"I love traveling and adrenaline sports like scuba-diving and snowboarding," says marketing coordinator Natalie Muri.

Joanne Dudley, a former U.S. Army sergeant, is a substitute rural route mail carrier, while retired Washington State University philosophy professor Michael Neville plays chamber music as often as possible.

Celeste Larson, a music teacher in Ferndale, also is a fine singer often appearing in musicals at the Claire vg Thomas Theatre.

"My mom made me start playing the cello in third grade," states Kacey Alleman, "but the next year I convinced her to let me play the instrument I wanted - the viola." A medical social worker at St. Joseph hospital, Kacey also works with children and families as a clinical social worker.

Becky Elmendorf, the retired principal of Squalicum High School who first joined the viola section in 1978, has served as president of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra board of directors the past two years. "I have great enthusiasm for this organization and feel honored to both play the music and help oversee its operation."

Just as in a church choir, each instrument family of the orchestra has soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices. In the string family, violins are first and second soprano, violas are alto, cellos are tenor and basses play the lowest notes.

Principal cellist Nick Strobel played in the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra as one of Joanne Donnellan's Ferndale High School students, Violist Celeste Larson was his fifth-grade music teacher.

A teacher now himself, Nick says, "I love my current assignment teaching orchestra at Bellingham High School and primary music at Sunnyland, and also the challenge of being cello principal with the WSO."

Chip Bergeron, former principal cellist, teaches orchestra at Squalicum High and conducts the Bellingham Chamber Players after the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra season ends.

Bette Ann Schwede teaches at Ferndale's Vista and Horizon middle schools. She got her start when the general music teacher told her, "A nice big girl like you should play the cello." "I was 5-foot, 4-inches in fifth grade!" laughs Bette Ann.

Another teacher, Travis Sipher, works with band and orchestra students at Kulshan and Shuksan middle schools. He plays bass in a jazz trio, and conducts the North Sound Community Orchestra and the Bayshore Symphony.

Noel Evans moved to Whatcom County after a 25-year career in marketing and advertising in Los Angeles. "I don't quite know how it happened. One day I was sitting in the back of the cello section, minding my own business. The next day, I was suddenly responsible for filling the Mount Baker Theatre six times a year." He succeeded and has retired once again, leaving a template of strategies and some very big shoes to fill.

"I wanted to play the violin, but my parents, who were both musicians, said I should play cello so I could play sitting down. They didn't mention carrying the cello," recalls Celia Obrecht, a retired Suzuki cello teacher.

The two youngest cellists are Megan Minkema and Cori Holquin. Megan teaches 13 private students and performs with pianist Katie O'Rourke. "I also have performed for two hard-core metal albums!" says Megan.

Cori serves as the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra librarian. "I play with an Argentine tango band called 'Tocato Tango' and also with the Whatcom Community College choir. I have three tattoos and 17 piercings and I really want to dye my hair blue, but I can't because the WSO won't allow it."

The bass section usually consists of students from Western Washington University, complemented for concerts by bassists from the Seattle area who come for the dress rehearsal and the concert. This season, our principal bass was Abbey Blackwell, a student at the University of Washington. She plays in an all-girl surf rock band called La Luz, and two other groups.

This is one of a yearlong 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.

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.shirley@bellinghamherald.com.

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