Voices of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra: Woodwind musicians often play as a section


Kristy Gillig, interim principal oboe, began playing oboe after undergoing eye surgery when she was 7 years old.

"I had been unable to read, so I listened to a lot of music and was immediately drawn to the unique sound of the oboe," Gillig said. "I was told that after surgery, if I caught up to my age level in reading, I could play the oboe. I loved reading and quickly caught up."

It is Gillig who, with a nod from the concertmaster, sounds an A note so brass, wind and string players tune together.

"My father was a folk musician. I needed to 'rebel' and chose to play a wind instrument," said Ken Bronstein, an oboe and English horn player.

As the director for business and finance at Whatcom Community College, Bronstein plays klezmer music with "What the Chelm" and "Millie and the Mentshn," as well as chamber music.

Interim principal flute, Debbie Arthur, has "had a lot of great role models, starting with my father who was a fabulous musician - he was a substitute trumpet player in the National Symphony when he was 18 - and I had many great teachers," she said.

Arthur has degrees in chemistry and French, and she is a product developer in the outdoor industry. A serious athlete, she paddles, runs, cycles and swims. She also manages the ticketing program for Whatcom Symphony Orchestra as a volunteer.

Nirvana Guernsey began playing flute at 12 years old, and has served as principal piccolo in the Thalia Orchestra in Seattle. She has a private teaching studio and coaches the Mount Baker Youth Symphony winds. Guernsey describes the orchestral repertoire as "full of stories, emotions, history and the human experience. It is amazing to be a part of that, and to share it with the audience."

Gena Campbell, who plays the flute and piccolo, first heard a flute solo at 5 years old at a Moody Blues concert at the Gorge.

"I turned to my mom and said, 'Someday I'm going to learn to play the flute,'" she recalled.

Campbell, who is an office administrator, is also an athlete.

"I absolutely love to river raft class-5 rapids, and would love to be a river rafting guide," Campbell said.

Principal clarinet David Alex works at Mount Baker Imaging, and he is pursuing an MBA in healthcare management.

"In my spare time I enjoy playing improvisational music in folk bands and hiking and exploring our area," Alex said.

Barry Ulman, an avid birdwatcher who has traveled the world photographing birds, has also composed numerous works.

"I always wanted to play the trumpet, but the clarinet was a hand-me-down from father to sister to me," Ulman said.

Ray Downey, also a composer, plays clarinet and saxophone.

"In high school I went to the Reno Jazz Festival several times and got hooked on jazz," said Downey.

Coltan Foster, another jazz aficionado, is the principal bassoonist for Whatcom Symphony Orchestra.

"I don't actually remember choosing the bassoon," Foster said. "I was playing bass clarinet in eighth grade, and before I knew it, I was playing bassoon my freshman year in high school."

Foster plays bass violin and sings in a jazz combo.

"I love jazz as much as any other genre of music, and I can't imagine life without it," he said.

Amber Anderson, a student at Western Washington University, added: "I saw a bassoon quartet the year I started band and knew that's what I have to play. I wish I could magically put my wisdom teeth back in - I played so much better when they were still there!"

Terhi Miikki-Broersma moved to the U.S. from Finland nine years ago and joined the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra in 2006. She runs the Lynden Music Festival.

"Playing bassoon in orchestra and playing dance music with the accordion nicely enrich my musical journey," Miikki-Broersma said.

Guernsey, Ulman, Bronstein and Miikki-Broersma perform in the wind ensemble that works with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students as part of the Musicians in the Schools outreach program.

Woodwind players all have individual parts, and principals have frequent solos. They also have many passages where they are featured as a section.

"I really appreciate the way we all listen to one another and adjust, trying to balance our parts to make a cohesive sound," Foster said.

This is the last 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. 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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