Visit the performance space at North Seattle Community College any given Tuesday evening and you’re likely to hear the strains of Beethoven, Debussy or Schumann floating on the air. It’s not an ensemble of student musicians hard at work -- it’s the sound of Philharmonia Northwest’s weekly rehearsal: Four dozen adult musicians gathered to celebrate their mutual love of music making.
It’s a Tuesday night tradition nearly forty years strong, ever since cellist and conductor Francis Walton founded the ensemble in 1976. Originally an outgrowth of the Thalia Symphony, Philharmonia Northwest stands on its own as one of the premiere community orchestras in the Seattle area, offering five concerts a year at St. Stephen’s church in Laurelhurst.
The members are as varied as they come. You’ll find lawyers playing the oboe, teachers in the viola section, a veterinarian on the bassoon and computer engineers among the violins. But don’t be fooled by their disparate day jobs. This is an ensemble of highly talented players who are dedicated to the perfection of their craft.
Comprised of only 45 permanent members, this orchestra is also a tight-knit community, a family of musicians, many of whom have played together for multiple decades. And despite the fact they they are not paid for their time or talents, this volunteer ensemble holds itself to the highest standard of music making. They are an amateur ensemble only in the oldest and truest sense of the word: they play propter amorem.
For the love of it.
It started in the early 1970s. Discontent with the lack of focused ensemble work in their current orchestra, players in the Thalia Symphony were eager for a change. The solution came from cellist, conductor and educator Francis Walton, who stepped up to the podium to create the Thalia Chamber Symphony.
“It was the beginning of a new kind of orchestra in Seattle” shared Walton. “There were no chamber orchestras in the area at the time. These were fine musicians, and they simply wanted to play the music as the composers intended -- and with this small group, we had the flexibility to do just that.”
Walton continued at the helm until 1985, performing with the orchestra in venues throughout the Puget Sound region. When it came time to retire, she was confident in her choice of successor: “I wanted Roupen. I had to aim for the best, someone who could go beyond what I was able to do, and he was the man to do it.”
In nearly a quarter century as Music Director, Roupen Shakarian continued Walton’s vision of a small chamber orchestra that would serve the community by providing exceptional music. Changing the name to Philharmonia Northwest, he placed a strong emphasis on performing music by local composers and showcasing the diverse talent of the region by inviting the top local soloists to perform with the ensemble.
Under Shakarian, the orchestra released its first two recordings, gave concerts in small towns throught Western Washington, and became a true fixture in Seattle’s concert scene.
When, in 2009, Shakarian decided to step down and focus on music making in his home community in the Skagit Valley, the orchestra underwent a nation-wide search for a new conductor. After a full season of auditions, the musicians of Philharmonia Northwest selected Julia Tai, a recent doctoral graduate from the University of Washington and a bright rising star on the local musical scene.
Four years into her tenure as Music Director, Julia Tai continues to celebrate the shared vision of Walton and Shakarian, deliberately keeping the membership to a Beethoven-sized chamber symphony and highlighting the talents of northwest composers and performers. Her goal is to present one world premiere each season, either performed or composed by a Seattle-area resident.
Tai also brings her own new ideas to the podium. One of her first initiatives: partnering with Seattle-area schools to create an educational outreach program. After attending rehearsals and participating in in-school artist visitations, select student musicians are embedded in the orchestra, sitting side-by-side with Philharmonia Northwest members at every concert.
“Community outreach -- especially with young people -- is so important for the long-term health of our field,” commented Tai. “Very few of these students will become professional musicians, and this experience shows them that you can keep playing at a very high level, even if you don’t make a career out of it. Orchestras like Philharmonia Northwest are as important a part of the classical music ecosystem as professional ensembles.”
Philharmonia Northwest’s celebration of forty years will come to a peak in March 2016, when the orchestra gives a celebratory concert at Benaroya Hall. All three music directors will conduct, and the program will conclude with one of the most momentous works in the repertoire: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A piece of historical and cultural significance in times of celebration and change, it is the perfect anthem to kick off the next four decades of music making for Philharmonia Northwest.
After forty years of rehearsals and concerts, we’ve accumulated a lot of memories: joyous moments, challenging moments, and musical moments that will live in our memories forever. Join us on Saturday, March 2, 2016 at Benaroya Hall for a jubilant celebration of the past forty years, and the forty years yet to come.