Two by Mozart, one by Mahler: Whatcom Symphony unites two composers

Sleigh bells, a violin with a “devilish quality” and a soprano with a “pure, creamy voice.” Sounds like a great combination for a winter-ish concert with Whatcom Symphony Orchestra.

“Mozart Meets Mahler” is the theme for the orchestra’s Nov. 23 concert at Mount Baker Theatre. Learn more about the background of the program in a video at whatcomsymphony.com in which music director Yaniv Attar talks about the connection between the composers who “come from completely different worlds.”

Guest vocalist for the concert is soprano Dawn Wolski, who says that although she grew up in a musical family in Washington, D.C, and played both clarinet and piano (and even composed music when she was a toddler!), music was not her first career choice.

“By the time I reached high school I was dead-set on being either a nuclear physicist or a cryptologist,” she says.

But one performance of musical theater changed her life.

“I came across an ad in the Washington Post for ‘Les Miserables,’ and got curious,” she says. “I had my older brother take me on a date, and was completely smitten. So I began to try my hand at theater, and then quickly discovered if I wanted to sing a lot of high notes I had to get into classical music and opera.”

“By the time I was in college, I was squarely in the ‘musician camp.’”

Wolski attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which has a “stellar music program,” she says. “Despite my years later at more prestigious programs around the world, I still hold those memories from undergrad most dear.”

She says one of her most memorable experiences was singing at Ronald Reagan’s funeral.

“That was pretty moving and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, sitting in the first row directly across from multiple former presidents.”

As for Sunday’s concert program, Wolksi says it’s both exciting and fun. You can never go wrong with Mozart, she says, and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is one of her favorites.

“The Mahler is the focal point of the concert, and I have the responsibility of entering on the very last movement to deliver the colorful text that is referenced throughout the other three movements,” she says. “It is a child’s view of heaven, and is both delightfully innocent as well as mischievous and with an even twisted sense of humor at times.”

(Cue the “devilish” violin, played by concertmaster Grant Donnellan.)

Maestro Attar attests that Mahler often wrote for voice, and that he often uses the orchestra in a vocal way.

With Mahler, he says, “the orchestra sings all the time!”

As to Wolski’s foray into musical theater when she was in high school, she says that last year she broke back into the world of professional theater, “which was more fun than I could have imagined.”

“You start with such a blank slate with a script, something you don’t get with a score,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed trying to bring some of that freshness back into my regular work whenever I can.”

And the sleigh bells?

Apparently, Mahler was the first composer to introduce them to a symphony orchestra.

Listen to them jingle in the first movement, which will transport you to Mahler’s “inner child.”