Whatcom Symphony Orchestra: Making music come alive

Bellingham Symphony Orchestra

When the members of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra tune their instruments and take the stage for their season-opening concert at 3pm Sun., Oct. 8 at the Mount Baker Theatre, it will signal both the start of the venerable arts organization’s 42nd season and its first under the leadership of new(ish) executive director, Gail Ridenour.

Ridenour has been at the helm of the WSO since January, but her connection to orchestral music and the particular kind of community that comes with it is one she’s had all her life. She grew up playing in orchestras, earned a master’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music where she studied with John Mack, before becoming a music teacher herself. So, when she relocated to Bellingham a couple of years ago, along with finding a place to live and going about all the other business of moving and settling in, she made finding an orchestra for her and her oboe a quality-of-life priority.

“Upon moving to Bellingham during the summer of 2015, one of the first things I did was search out and find the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra,” Ridenour says. “Making music is such a valuable part of my life. Sharing my passion for music is one of the ways I like to give back to the community where I live.”

Joining an 80-member orchestra that has been around for four decades might be a daunting proposition for some, but Ridenour found the WSO to be a good fit for her, both in musical direction and the vision of the organization itself. She taught music by day, was co-principal oboe and English horn player for the WSO in her spare time, and in this way, crafted for herself a life made of the music she so loves.

But Ridenour never intended for teaching to become her end-all, be-all, and when the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra launched its search for a new executive director, she realized that many of the abilities she’d brought to bear in her teaching jobs, when combined with her community orchestra experience and her education, gave her the skill set required to lead the organization.

“When I looked at the job requirements for the position, they really mirrored many of the responsibilities, duties and requirements I was doing in my teaching and volunteer work, just with slight tweaks,” Ridenour says. “In addition to the creativity I bring to the job, I am very practical as well and detail-oriented. My past experience with budgets and finance, grant writing, managing volunteers, putting together school programs and concerts, and working with families has proven very useful and transferable.”

Although we like to think of running one of Bellingham’s most prestigious arts nonprofits as being a glamorous and refined affair, in truth, it is the nuts-and-bolts skills Ridenour mentions that make the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra function on a day-to-day basis. And while those capabilities are certainly necessary to a job well done, it is Ridenour’s love of orchestral music and her desire to pass it on to future generations that make her just the person for this particular job.

“One of the things I love about the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra is their commitment to the arts community and the community at large through community and youth engagement,” she says. “I think the mission statement to ‘perform music of all ages to inspire audiences of all ages’ really sums up the organization.”

She goes on to detail how the WSO is putting that mission into action, saying, “We have many programs in place and new programs coming this year to reach the next generation of classical music lovers. I love how we go into the schools to enhance music programs and support teachers. One program we are keeping is the very popular Take-a-Teen, which gives teenagers a free ticket with an accompanying adult ticket holder. WSO has a very exciting new Educational Concert at the Mount Baker Theatre this year as part of their Educational Series on Monday, May 7, 2018…. One of my goals with WSO is to make music come alive for kids. I think this concert will do just that. Supporting WSO isn’t just supporting orchestral music in the community. It is also supporting the next generation.”

But before that next generation of WSO musicians takes over, the current one still has a whole lot of music to bring to the appreciative public, beginning with the aforementioned Oct. 8 season opener, which will feature the orchestra in all its immeasurably talented 80-person glory, as well as rising star and violinist, Benjamin Beilman. And lest you think Ridenour will be enjoying the concert from some prime seat within the Mount Baker Theatre—well, you’d be right. She’ll be seated, oboe in hand, playing along with the rest of her WSO compatriots.

“In addition to our fabulous guest artist Benjamin Beilman playing the beautiful Sibelius Violin Concerto, the orchestra is closing the concert with Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony,” Ridenour says. “As an oboist, the symphony presents some fun challenges, particularly in the second movement in terms of articulation. I have been loving the music and coming away with a big smile on my face. I hope the audience will feel the same way after listening to this opening concert.”

From there, Ridenour’s inaugural season as executive director will be off and running, with each concert, event and program not only entertaining Bellingham audiences, but also serving to highlight how beneficial the WSO is to the community as a whole.

“In an organization like ours,” Ridenour says, “there are so many people to acknowledge and thank from our generous sponsors and donors to the great audiences that make our concerts possible! Our orchestra has grown so much under the direction of our Music Director Yaniv Attar. He inspires us all to grow as musicians and programs wonderful music. That being said, I think the many volunteers who make up the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra deserve thanks for their work. Their commitment to excellence brings a high level of musicianship to the repertoire. Without their passion and drive to make the music come alive, our world would be much more quiet.”

Whatcom Symphony Orchestra opens its season with a 3pm Sun., Oct. 8 “Scottish Symphony & Sibelius” concert at Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St. Tickets are $15-$54 and can be purchased at or

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