The White Rock Community Orchestra

REVIEW: Community orchestra a credit to White Rock

Christmas concert a showcase of volunteer ensemble's potential

A community orchestra is a special component of any local arts scene.

Composed, as it must be, of a cross-section of volunteer musicians encompassing every age from seniors to young students, and many different skill levels – ranging from the retired professional to the enthusiastic amateur – it exists purely as a labour of love, independent of many of the more hard-nosed aspects of the commercial music world.

The downside of such a large-scale symphonic-style venture can be a certain musical inconsistency (which can include the possibility of ragged entrances and endings, ensemble ‘muddiness’ and section intonation problems).

The upside of such an undertaking, however, can be the power of the sheer love of music it expresses and the infectious joy it can inspire in listeners.

If the community is as fortunate as White Rock, the orchestra will reach a level in which positives far outweigh any negatives.

And, indeed, the White Rock Community Orchestra – now in its 43rd year, and under the strong leadership of new conductor Paula DeWit, a seasoned musician, and co-founder and ‘maestra’ of the Chilliwack Symphony – is currently exhibiting an ambition and pride in musicianship that makes it a true credit to the city.

On the evidence of the organization’s Christmas concert last Saturday, well-received by a close-to-capacity crowd at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, this is a city-sponsored group of which the community can justly be proud – and one that deserves increasing opportunities to perform, as an essential component, in special events and celebrations throughout the calendar year.

Following in the footsteps of former conductor Stuart Martin, DeWit has been setting the bar high for the orchestra, and this leadership, and her obvious faith in the capabilities of the musicians, is paying off. To use a rather well-worn phrase, the orchestra is ‘taking it to the next level.’

The appropriate program of light classics, popular movie and theatre music and holiday favourites chosen by DeWit for Saturday’s concert made few concessions to amateur status in terms of the complexity of orchestration.

For example the scores for Irving Berlin – A Symphonic Portrait, Leroy Anderson’s A Christmas Festival, and Leontovich’s Carol of the Bells dress their highly familiar melodies in some very sophisticated and challenging rhythmic and harmonic effects.

The results, while not reaching total perfection, achieved a consistently high level of musicality that transcended any usual expectation for such a concert.

A tender reading of  Morricone’s Chi Mai and Offenbach’s famous Barcarolle and a measured rendition of Lecuona’s Malaguena from his Andalucia Suite succeeded in being idiomatically evocative, while Schubert’s Marche Militaire No. 1, and the orchestra’s encore, Strauss’ Radetzky March, bookended the concert with a spirited flourish – DeWit encouraging the audience to clap along to the latter favourite.

In partnership with such strong soloists as the orchestra’s flautist Rose Hamilton, playing the key melodic role in Ennio Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe (from The Mission), and Surrey-based guest artist Michelle Koebke – whose beautifully clear and full-toned soprano highlighted the Handel aria Lascia ch’io pianga and Adam’s O Holy Night – the overall accomplishment went beyond the simply musical to reach an, ultimately, magical plane.

Icing on the evening’s Christmas cake was provided by the other guest artists, DeWit’s Chilliwack-based a capella group Belle Voci (for which she is both leader and one of the singers), whose well-balanced, rich-toned sound was admirably showcased in pieces that included The Twelve Days of Christmas and an adventurously harmonic jazz-style Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

In addition to the orchestra’s spring recital, it is also confirmed for next year’s opening of the White Rock Farmers Market – and I look forward to more high-profile      concerts in which even more residents can experience and show appreciation for this bona fide city treasure.


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