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Whatcom Chorale presents beauty through song

‘¡Feliz Navidad!’ brings ‘sparkling Latin American Christmas music’ onstage

Whatcom Chorale Artistic Director and Conductor Deborah Brown leads the group through a song during a Tuesday
Whatcom Chorale Artistic Director and Conductor Deborah Brown leads the group through a song during a Tuesday
By Margaret Bikman CDN Contributor

The Whatcom Chorale is known for its magnificent performances of Handel’s “Messiah,” Mozart’s “Requiem” and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” — although its concerts invariably include contemporary works by American composers, as well as works in Spanish, French and Russian.

Artistic Director and Conductor Deborah Brown said this year’s program is a little different.

The concert, titled “¡Feliz Navidad! Rhythms and Traditions of Hispanic America,” takes place Saturday, Dec. 2 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It will feature, Brown said, “sparkling Latin American Christmas music,” including groundbreaking Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez’s “Misa Criolla” and “Navidad Nuestra.” 

The concert will be accompanied by an instrumental ensemble composed of flutist Martin Bray, pianist Dongho Lee, bassist Thom Mayes, guitarist Eli Schille-Hudson and Kay Reilly on marimba and percussion. 

Also in the program is a piece by Bellingham composer Scott Henderson, “Shepherds’ Dance.” Henderson has a long history of working with the chorale.

“The chorale has been a major part of my musical and social life since retiring here from my radio career and crazy Los Angeles life in 2010,” he said. “Being a composer and lifelong choral singer, I was bowled over by a Whatcom Chorale concert in 2012. I soon signed up to audition for Deb Brown — and I was in!”

photo  Whatcom Chorale President Eric Morgan sings a solo. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

When Henderson first offered one of his own works to the chorale, he said he received an enthusiastic response. “Shepherds’ Dance” premiered in 2015. He’s also worked on two major pieces, as well as a choral song cycle for the Whatcom Chorale and Sinfonia. 

Brown said she was initially encouraged to join the group by rave Whatcom Chorale reviews from longtime members, including visual artist Susan Bennerstrom — who, Brown notes, shares her gorgeous paintings with the chorale for publicity purposes. She auditioned for conductor Linda Scheuffle Frost in 1995.

“I joined the legendary ‘Back Row Altos,’” Brown said, “and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the remarkable singers who make up this ensemble.”

After two years of assisting mentor Charles Peterson during his time as director in 2007, she took over the reins as artistic director and conductor in 2009.

Whatcom Chorale began in 1972 when David Clarke gathered about 20 local singers to perform. The ensemble now includes approximately 80 singers.

During his tenure as artistic director in 2002–03, Allan Cline spearheaded efforts to form the Whatcom Chorale Sinfonia, which provides orchestral accompaniment for chorale performances.

photo  Deborah Brown conducts the Whatcom Chorale. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

The mission of the chorale is “anchored in the classics, focused on the future” and Brown pointed to several concerts that illuminate that purpose.

For example, in 2019, the chorale presented the world premiere of Washington state composer Sarah Mattox’s powerful “Heart Mountain Suite,” based on the diary of Kara Kondo.

Kondo was incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming during World War II. KING 5 anchor Lori Matsukawa arranged for a reporter to interview Brown and a local member of the Japanese-American community, and recorded part of a rehearsal. 

“With help from the local Japanese-American community,” Brown said, “we set up a historical display for viewing after the concert, with videos, pictures, artifacts and more.”

This video, along with the display, is now an official part of the archives of the Division of Heritage Resources at Western Libraries on Western Washington University’s campus. 

In May of 2022 — after a two-year delay due to COVID-19 — Mount Baker Theatre provided a grand setting for Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” and sacred works by Mendelssohn.

“Bellingham’s architectural jewel was a fitting venue to showcase local talents Kim Markworth, Ibidunni Ojikutu, Jason Parker, Mark Davies and pianist Henry From, who was selected as one of CBC Music’s ‘30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30’ in 2019,” Brown said.

photo  The group rehearses an adaptation of “Shepherds’ Dance.” The piece is by Bellingham composer and Whatcom Chorale member Scott Henderson. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

Bennerstrom joined the “New Whatcom Choral Society” in 1976. Bob Scandrett was the choral director at Western at the time, and Bennerstrom learned he also was directing a new group, the New Whatcom Chorale Society.  She “nervously auditioned” and was thrilled to get in, she said.

One of her favorite memories is of a European concert tour in 1986, led by Scandrett.

“The concert hall was packed to the gills, and there was an audible gasp from audience members and performers alike as Prince Charles and Princess Diana entered and walked to their seats,” Bennerstrom said.

Whatcom Chorale Board President Eric Morgan said the mix of talented singers and those with limited training is part of the appeal of the ensemble.

“It is a place for everyone. It allows for those with a lot of skill and those with an ear to also contribute,” he said.

Bennerstrom agrees. 

“For those of us who are not churchgoers,” she said, “blending our voices together and working hard to learn the music creates a bond similar to what people in faith groups must feel. The music isn’t always easy, and we challenge ourselves to create beauty together.”

Whatcom Chorale presents “¡Feliz Navidad!” at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 2117 Walnut St. Tickets are $25. Info:

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