Music and life in balance

Walla Walla Symphony musicians juggle their lives so the show can go on.

Walla Walla Symphony members Ron Coleman, left, and Craig Nelsen, center, and Executive Director Leah Wison-Velasco, relax in the tasting room of Nelsen's Ensemble Wine.

Walla Walla Symphony members Ron Coleman, left, and Craig Nelsen, center, and Executive Director Leah Wison-Velasco, relax in the tasting room of Nelsen's Ensemble Wine. Photo by Donna Lasater.


Upcoming performances

The Walla Walla Symphony and PROJECT Trio perform April 23. On May 14, the symphony teams up with the Walla Walla Choral Society for the performance of Verdi’s “Requiem.” For details, ticket information and a full schedule of performances, see or call 509-529-8020.

A great symphony performance is a seemingly miraculous balance of sound and rhythm — all of which must come together with spot-on timing among dozens of musicians.

For many of the Walla Walla Symphony’s musicians, there’s also the balancing act of daily life — handling regular jobs, families, commitments and other day-to-day intricacies with rehearsals and performances.

Yet for 106 years members of the symphony, the oldest continuously operating one west of the Mississippi, have done just that.

“These people are essential,” said Leah Wilson-Velasco, the symphony’s executive director. “Absolutely, we wouldn’t be who we are without the local musicians and the talent we have in this community.

“It’s a part of hometown pride ... It’s an important part of our legacy. It’s literally your doctor, pilot, potentially your teacher who are members of the symphony.”

Ron Coleman, an airline pilot who plays clarinet, said being a regular in the orchestra has enriched his life.

“And it still does,” he said. “I first played with the Walla Walla Symphony, in 1970, as an 18-year-old and clearly recall the thrill of hearing a symphony in ‘surround sound.’ I had grown up listening to music, but this was the difference between music in black and white and music in color.”


Craig Nelsen's violin fits neatly between the two largest bottles of Ensemble wine he produces.

Playing with other musicians and before an audience also has been “a great diversion from my world at work,” he added. “It does take a commitment of time for practice and study and a certain amount of discipline. But with the compressed rehearsal schedule and my ability to control my flying schedule, as a fairly senior pilot at my airline, I have been able to almost always make it work.”

The orchestra is typically made up of about 45 to 50 performers, Wilson-Velasco said. More than half live and work in the Valley, while others come in from the Tri-Cities and elsewhere in the region to rehearse and perform.

Members don’t necessarily have to play every concert; certain instruments aren’t used for every piece of music. Low brass, such as trombone and tuba, aren’t always in the lineup and some baroque pieces require fewer strings, she explained.

“It’s dictated based on repertoire and what’s stylistically appropriate,” she said.

Regardless, performers make a commitment of time and energy and juggle all of their responsibilities.

“We do our best to recognize that these folks have full-time gigs; most performances and rehearsals are in the evenings and on Sundays,” Wilson-Velasco said.

“The musicians have families, work and may have to be out of town for work. We do our best to accommodate it. We know what’s expected, so we send out the full rehearsal schedule.”

Over the years the rehearsal schedule has changed to accommodate evening rehearsals, to be more compatible with musicians’ work schedules.

“The Sunday before a concert we have both afternoon and evening rehearsals,” she said. “A typical rehearsal structure would be two rehearsals exclusively for strings, then three for the full symphony. That’s our standard and then there are some variations.”

Violinist Craig Nelsen, owner of Ensemble Cellars, has found a blend for his commitments to the symphony and his Walla Walla winery. Most winery events are on weekends and symphony performances are usually on Tuesday nights so that works well for him.

“I can usually schedule the work at the winery around what I need to do with the symphony,” he said.

Sometimes the first concert in the fall coincides with the heavy labor of harvest and crush, and it takes quite a bit of physical stamina to work intensely all day and then play violin that evening.

“You have both arms up in the air for two hours,” he said.

But, he added, “If you love playing classical music you can get right in there. You could play Beethoven’s 5th in your room alone, just one part, or you could have that whole symphonic thing going on around you.”

For Lyn Ritz, who teaches violin and viola at Walla Walla University, playing with the symphony is as important to her as breathing.

“It’s hard to put into words but music has been a passion my entire life,” she said. “I can participate in creating that music, the music I listened to as a kid. I’m part of a whole. I’m leading a section that is part of the whole.”

It’s a kind of therapy that helps performers put aside concerns and worries and focus on the moment at hand.

It’s a choice, Ritz said.

“As a musician, you gear your mind and body to accept the challenge,” she said. “If you get enough out of it you can do it.”


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