About three years ago, an idea was germinating at Westminster Congregational United Church. The church community had always supported the arts, so why not take it one step further and actually form an arts organization? Thanks to start-up funds from a generous donor and expanded support from the church, the Westminster Chamber Orchestra was born. From the beginning, Dr. Stan McDaniel, the church's music minister, has embraced the challenge of forging a new performing arts organization and concert series.
"I'm pleased with how we've had success garnering interest," he says. "I think people appreciate that we're flexible and doing a different repertoire than anyone else in the community."
The orchestra is organizationally separate from the church, McDaniel says, making fund-raising easier. "We're now a 501(c)3 non-profit," he explains. "We're still working on our finances, but we're no longer dependent on a single donor. We're now secure enough to offer season tickets for the first time."
Defining the orchestra artistically has not been as big a challenge for McDaniel as the financing. From the outset, he saw a niche in the local classical music scene that was not being served. "Basically, we do works for string orchestra and chamber orchestra," he says. "We have the core string orchestra, and we bring in other instruments as needed, depending on the program. These are works you wouldn't hear in the typical symphony concert because they want to use the full orchestra."
An example is the program for the first concert of this season, scheduled for this Friday and Saturday. "The first half of the program focuses on masterworks for string orchestra," McDaniel says. "In this case, the theme is music from the Russian school. But more than that, it's music that's tied together by its passion and romantic lyricism."
The concert will open with the Spokane premier of A Lyrical Movement for String Orchestra by Norman Dello Joio. The piece was written in 1995 and published in 1998 by Dello Joio, a New York composer. "He lives in Brooklyn, and he must be close to 90 by now," says McDaniel. "He writes very much in the post-Copland style, yet still with a romantic flair."
Also featured will be Suite for Strings by John Rutter. "People think of Rutter as primarily a choral composer, but he wrote many wonderful orchestral pieces that don't get played often in this country," he says.
After intermission, the Clarion Brass will join the members of the string orchestra for works by Gabrieli, Schmelzer and local trumpeter William Berry, among others. Also planned is a performance of Berry's arrangement of the traditional African-American spiritual, Steal Away.
"That is such an incredible arrangement, it ought to put Bill on the map," McDaniel asserts. "Bill is the founder and director of the Clarion Brass, and he has written arrangements for the Canadian Brass. He is really one of the finest trumpeters in the western U.S."
The sanctuary of Westminster Congregational United Church has been the orchestra's performance space from the start, and McDaniel sees the venue as one of the group's assets. "For the type of works we do, it's probably the best acoustics in Spokane," he says. "Everybody that performs here just loves it. For chamber music, the setting allows the audience to sit close to the musicians. Most of the music we do was written to be performed in a more intimate atmosphere, like this."
McDaniel enjoys working with the musicians of the orchestra, most of whom are also members of the Spokane Symphony. "We have so many wonderful musicians in Spokane, but we need a venue like this to showcase all the talent that's right here," he says. "I have been just blown over by the support of the musicians. It has been a lot of work, but it feels like the orchestra is filling a need. That makes the work worthwhile and makes it all the more gratifying."