Artist Profile: Conductor Deb Brown directs Whatcom Chorale with the finesse of a coach

Deb Brown, the director of Whatcom Chorale, is described by Jeff Margolis, a longtime singer with the ensemble, as a “coach with split-second timing.”

“It’s like watching football to see who has the ball, letting the section that ‘has the ball’ carry the melody,” he says. “It’s all about precision, balance and timing.”

The analogy is apt; Brown is also a tennis pro, where she can perfect her “precision, balance and timing.”

Brown will direct the chorale Sunday, Dec. 14, at Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center, where they will perform about 70 percent of Handel’s traditional holiday oratorio, “The Messiah,” a piece with plenty of sectional highlights.

Here’s more about Brown, who was born in Farmington, N.M., on the Navajo Indian reservation where her parents ran the trading post.

Question: What led to your life in music?

Answer: During this season of gratitude, I am immensely grateful for the following: The little lady down the street who loaned us her spinet piano; my parents’ generosity in providing lessons in piano, ballet, and tennis, and in supporting my passions for choir, musicals and tennis tournaments.

These rich early opportunities led to my current multifaceted work; artistic director and conductor for Whatcom Chorale, minister of music at First Congregational Church of Bellingham, private music instructor, and tennis pro at Bellingham Tennis Club.

I am truly blessed to follow my passions in my employment.

Q: Where did you receive your training?

I’m an “anteater” from the University of California at Irvine, with additional studies at University of Southern California at Los Angeles and California State University at Fullerton, and also at the Music Academy of the West and the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria.

While studying in Graz, my tennis proved to be very helpful. My German professor was an avid tennis player, and every day after German class we would go to the beautiful red clay court inside the walls of his friend’s factory and play tennis. So both my tennis and German received extra practice.

Teachers who inspired my path as a singer and conductor include my childhood church choir director, who discovered my perfect pitch (inherited from my grandfather, whom I never met); my high school choir teacher, who encouraged me to conduct the chamber choir; and my opera coach, who helped me find courage on stage by fully inhabiting the operatic characters I was so fortunate to portray.

Q: What have been some of the highlights of your musical career?

A: Some of my peak musical experiences include singing the role of Hansel to sold-out houses in a full production at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles (including a fabulous witch who dyed her tongue a hideous shade of green for every performance); studying and singing with Vance George, choral director emeritus for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, during an excellent Choral Symposium at WWU; and spending time with the immensely gifted American composer Alice Parker, who lovingly read aloud the text to her composition, “SongStream,” which Whatcom Chorale subsequently performed.

Q: Why do you love music?

A: I find tremendous joy in singing and conducting for several reasons: The joy of working to learn and explore the music of master composers with a tremendous team, including our brilliant accompanist, Kay Zavislak, our inspiring rehearsal associate, Scott Henderson, and our very generous, hardworking and fun-loving board of directors and volunteers. How often does one look forward to board meetings?

One of our volunteers, Rocky Champagne, our concert manager, works wonders managing the concert setting, risers, chairs, music stands, podiums, etc., our 100 singers, and countless logistical details. Perhaps his prior career with the Washington State Patrol prepared him well for these challenges.

And there’s the joy of sharing with our community tremendous choral works, combining wonderful texts with inspiring music that touches us in profound ways beyond description.

Q: What can people expect at Sunday’s concert?

A: We are blessed to have terrific soloists: Sherrie Kahn, soprano; Rebecca Robinson, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Lutzenhiser, tenor; and Charles Robert Stevens, bass; as well as a wonderful Sinfonia, with Walter Schwede as concertmaster. I’m grateful to Pat Nelson for her excellent work as Sinfonia contractor.

Q: What’s coming up for the chorale?

A: On March 15 we will present folk songs from America and the British Isles, and on May 31 we will perform one of the pinnacles of choral repertoire, Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Q: What’s your affinity for tennis?

A: I love teaching tennis to all ages, including a precocious 11-year-old who manages to report to the very chilly tennis courts at 7 a.m. every week to hone his technique before heading off to school. Other students include players in their 80s and 90s. I enjoy seeing many of our singers who are also talented players at Bellingham Tennis Club.

Q: Any relationship between the sports you enjoy and music?

A: I am passionate about surfing and paddling my surf ski. There may be some connection between the thrill of being carried by an ocean wave and the wonder of being lifted by a beautiful musical phrase.