Walla Walla Symphony hires new CEO

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WALLA WALLA -- Leah Wilson-Velasco is more than ready for a trip back to her adopted home.

She graduated from Whitman College in 2003 with a major in music and married a hometown boy a few years after that.

Although she's been anchored in Boston for awhile, the New Mexico native has long loved the Northwest, she said this morning. And Walla Walla in particular, where she played in the Walla Walla and Mid Columbia symphonies, as well as the Whitman College String Quartet -- the viola her instrument of choice.

She brought music to the public by managing the school's Fridays at Four concert series with a focus on an informal accessible venue for enjoying music.

On Tuesday, Wilson-Velasco took the opportunity to take a step back into that time by accepting the position of chief executive officer with the Walla Walla Symphony, a job that came open with the March resignation of Michael Wenberg.

She's kept her eye on the symphony here for a long time, Wilson-Velasco said this morning. "My intrigue was really piqued when they started the youth symphony a couple of years ago. That's my area of interest."

The musician left college with her diploma to head to East to work, most recently directing the education program for the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras -- a collection of six orchestras serving students ages 6-18.

Hearing the announcement of Wilson-Velasco's hire came as a thrill to Whitman music professor Susan Pickett. Not only did she mentor the new CEO in class, she served as the symphony's concert master for 20 years.

"Leah showed a lot of promise. She was one of the most mature students I've encountered and been I've been teaching here 30 years," she said.

Pickett also found her prize student to be a creative and innovative thinker, "but resilient and tough," the professor said. "She's a very warm and approachable person. She will be fantastic."

Past symphony head Dr. Richard Simon agrees, although he can't say so in any official way since he's no longer on the board. However, his son Michael married Wilson-Velasco here in 2009 and getting the couple back to town is a win for everyone, he believes. "Leah loves music and is very good on the administrative side. She comes from a very musical family."

While the Walla Walla Symphony has had excellent leadership for much of its existence, "we've never had a CEO who understand music as well as business," Simon said. "And she's had educational roles... that's one of the thing this community really wants, more involvement with children from the Symphony."

That she understands the role of music and the culture in Walla Walla -- plus her husband's family -- doesn't hurt, either, he acknowledged.

Out of a pool of desirable applicants, Wilson-Velasco was at the top of the ladder, noted the organization's chief governance officer, Ed Foster. "She was the most highly-qualified in the judgement of the board."

She's "very much" looking forward to her move to Walla Walla, scheduled to happen in mid-July, Wilson-Velasco said.

Her husband, an equal advocate for the arts, plans to open a music production studio and work in graphic design, as well as tap into the local music scene, she explained.

Which looks like an exciting place to be, even from a nation away, the CEO said.

"I see Walla Walla as at the tipping point right now, with the Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival in the summer and the Power House Theater starting," Wilson-Velasco said. "I want to be part of that."

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