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A Little Night Music 

by Sheri Boggs


We all know where to look for lively classical music -- say Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony or Carmina Burana. We also know where to go for baroque, chamber music and 20th century orchestral music. The Spokane Symphony, Allegro, the Spokane String Quartet and Zephyr all have those musical classifications well under control. But where does one go for lesser-known but nevertheless stunning pieces of classical music or for chamber orchestra performances? This is where the Westminster Chamber Orchestra, which offers its annual candlelight concerts this Friday and Saturday night, comes in.


Founded in 1999, the Westminster Chamber Orchestra is led by Stan McDaniel, who studied conducting at the University of Southern California and previously worked with the First Presbyterian Church in Spokane. The orchestra's home base is Westminster Congregational Church, a turn-of-the-century stone edifice on Washington near Lewis and Clark High School. While the orchestra is named after the church and performs at two or three worship services a year (on a stage designed and built by McDaniel), it is not church-sponsored and it recently achieved status as a fully independent non-profit.


Falling somewhere between a string quartet and a full-scale symphonic outfit, the chamber orchestra is composed of around 20 musicians, many of them already members of the Spokane Symphony.


"The most players we've had for any concert is 24, and we'll have 19 for this upcoming concert," says McDaniel. "In a performance of this scale, every single player is important, everyone has to work. We rehearse very hard, and everyone knows they've got a big role to play."


The orchestra's smaller size nevertheless gives it a broad range of musical options. McDaniel points out that it is not competing with the Spokane Symphony in this regard so much as augmenting it.


"We try to pick things you wouldn't hear at a symphony concert," he says. "From the very beginning, we've felt that there is a huge body of music that needs to be heard. The danger with classical music is that it can begin to become a cliche. When you've heard Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' so many times that it starts showing up in beer commercials, you know you're in trouble. So we're more interested in seeking out and performing music that people just don't hear as much."


For the candlelight concert, the chamber orchestra will perform music from all across the classical music timeline, including Debussy's "Sacred and Profane Dances," a "Broadway Bouquet" of Gershwin, Bernstein and Hoagy Carmichael, and the premier performance of former Whitworth professor Michael Young's "Romance for Strings and Harp."


"The 'Romance for Strings and Harp' is very 20th century, very rhythmic," says McDaniel. "It evokes a starkly beautiful view of nature, which is very influenced by Michael's travels in the Canadian Rockies. You can hear lots of snow and ice and sliding down slopes."


Harpist Leslie Stratton-Norris, mezzo soprano Heather Peterson and pianist Greg Pressley will be joining the Westminster Chamber Orchestra for the candlelight concerts. Peterson will be accompanying many of the numbers, including the haunting "Chanson Perpetuale," Opus 37 by Ernest Chausson.


"Chausson was influenced by both Wagner and Debussy, if you can imagine that," says McDaniel. "It's an amazing late 19th-century poem about a woman who finds love and then loses it. It's poetry in the sense that it encompasses all her joy and sadness, and it's also very true to life. It's really a gorgeous piece."

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