Whatcom Symphony Orchestra flourishing under new music director Yaniv Attar

Yaniv Attar is completing his first season as music director of Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, and by all accounts (particularly financially), the year has been a success, with all concerts nearly selling out.

Although the symphony's concert on Sunday, May 4, is sold out, Attar and WSO Executive Director Thom Mayes hatched the idea to open the symphony's rehearsal Friday, May 2, to the public.

Also coming up is the annual family concert later this month.

Here are some of Attar's thoughts about the past year, since he moved to Bellingham from Birmingham, Ala., where he was assistant conductor with Alabama Symphony Orchestra for two years.

Question: What have been some unexpected pleasures in your first season with WSO?

Answer: The first season with the WSO has been truly remarkable. It takes time for a conductor to really know an orchestra, and even after my audition concert, I really didn't know the orchestra that well.

When I programmed the pieces for this past season, I had no idea how things would work out, and I have to say, I have been amazed at the result. The orchestra has grown tremendously this season and, on a personal note, I have grown a lot as a conductor. I feel great chemistry and connection with the group.

Q: How have your experiences in Bellingham been different from other cities and towns?

A: Both my family and I really love Bellingham. We adore its beauty and we love the people.

I have lived mostly in big cities, such as London, New York and Montreal, so it was a little strange for me to see the WSO posters with my face all over town. A lot of people also approach me on the street to tell me how much they have enjoyed the orchestra this year, so it feels really nice to be in such a tight, music-loving community.

Q: What have been some of your own guitar performances in Bellingham?

A: The first time I played guitar was actually at our temple, Beth Israel Congregation, during the High Holidays last fall.

My days as a guitarist are long gone, but I am happy to say that I am playing more these days. I played in a concert for our outreach program at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in November, and I sometimes play with other musicians from the orchestra at various WSO members-only "At Home" dinners. I hope to continue this in the future, too.

As a conductor, you shape sound, but you don't produce it, and I love playing guitar.

Q: What led you to decide to have an open rehearsal for this upcoming concert?

When the concert was almost sold out, Thom Mayes, our executive director, and I decided that this is a unique opportunity. This is the first time the WSO was going to be sold out before we even started rehearsing the piece!

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a huge undertaking for any orchestra, and especially for a community orchestra. The WSO has performed this piece only twice in the past, both times with a gap of more than 10 years between the performances.

I didn't want people who didn't have the chance to buy a ticket to miss out, so we thought this would be a perfect opportunity for an open dress rehearsal. It is a wonderful piece to end the season and show the community the incredible energy and excitement we have generated this season.

Q: And there's a family concert coming up?

A: The family concert I am especially excited about. This is the first time we are going to do it in Bellingham High School, and the kids will be sitting on the floor with the orchestra. I think that being in such proximity to the musicians is a completely different experience than if they were to sit at Mount Baker Theatre. We will have a great program, and lots of activities before the concert.

Q: What are some future plans for WSO?

A: It has been a tremendous joy for me to plan the next two seasons with the WSO artistic team. We will continue to collaborate with local arts groups, such as the Bellingham Children's Choir and the Mount Baker Toppers. We are also bringing in very exciting soloists.

Most importantly, we are adding a seventh concert to our season. As a large orchestra, we tend to focus on the big orchestral works, and I didn't want to neglect some of the Baroque and early classical music, so we are adding a chamber music concert next year. It is important to play that repertoire for the continuous growth of the WSO.

Q: What have been some of your recent accolades and achievements, and why are they so special?

A: I was just announced as one of seven conductors from the United States to receive the Sir George Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistant Award, which grants awards to rising young conductors.

In addition, this coming June I will travel to Berlin to take part in Interaktion 2014. During this program I will work with an orchestra composed of Germany's top orchestral musicians, from orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Konzerthaus Orchestra, German Symphony Orchestra and the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin.

It is a real privilege to take part in this program and I am extremely excited about it!


- Whatcom Symphony Orchestra open dress rehearsal, 6 p.m. Friday, May 2, Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St. Tickets, $10, open seating, available at 360-734-6080 and mountbakertheatre.com.

- Family Concert opens with pre-concert activities at 2:30 p.m. May 18, with concert at 3, Bellingham High School, 2020 Cornwall Ave. Concert features Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," performed by Bellingham pianists Victoria and Dan Sabo and narrated by Bill Tierney from The Upfront Theatre.

Suggested contribution: $10 adults, free for youths 18 and younger. Details: whatcomsymphony.com.