Expect the Unexpected From Olympia Chamber Orchestra

by Rosemary Ponnekanti for OLY ARTS

Improvisation isn’t usually a thing for classical orchestras, so this year’s season for the Olympia Chamber Orchestra shows just how nimble that ensemble can be. After last year’s conductor search ended in disappointment, the orchestra is once again trying out two candidates, with some of the season’s music — and the final concert conductor — quite unknown.

“The new conductor we had chosen last year just pulled out because he got an offer for a paid position,” explained Claudia Simpson-Jones, who retired last year after 12 years of serving as the orchestra’s director and is now on the board. (Being a community orchestra, the OCO doesn’t pay its director.) “We had to start another search. So we decided on ‘Expect the Unexpected’ for the name of this season — just like last year.” The search has narrowed to two candidates: Nathan Rødahl, who’ll conduct the fall concert, and Nickolas Carlson, who’ll conduct on March 3. After each conductor trial — which includes program planning, administrative tasks and rehearsals — the orchestra will decide on the winner, who’ll conduct the final concert on June 17 (and choose the program).

The fall concert ranges across eras from the Symphony in D by Basque composer Juan Cristóstomo Arriaga (called the Spanish Mozart) to Leos Janácek’s Suite for Strings, with some Debussy, Korngold and Bizet thrown in. Wondering how all these chamber works are connected? You’re not alone. “Nathan’s very excited about these pieces,” says Simpson-Jones. “He’s not telling anyone how they are related. He’ll have the audience guess that during the concert.” As the name says, expect the unexpected — again. Rødahl is a violinist who teaches in the Puyallup school district and for the Student Orchestras of Greater Olympia, of which he’s an alum. He’s the concertmaster of Seattle Ensign, and is also a regional tenor soloist.

Carlson is an organist and the director of the Pacific Northwest Theater Company. Like Rødahl, he’s in his mid-20s. His March program includes Beethoven, Ravel and Schumann.

Meanwhile, after the last conductor search, the orchestra plans to be a little more inquisitive about both candidates’ commitment to a volunteer position, regardless of what else might come up. Has the OCO considered a different model, one that might raise funds for a conductor stipend? “We’ve discussed it,” says Simpson-Jones. “We decided not to charge dues. We do this because we love it. And while we are a 501(c)3 nonprofit and we do a fundraiser, it’s to raise money for music rental, hall rental, that kind of thing — which is not cheap.”

Simpson-Jones, who has had an eclectic career as both a Las Vegas stage act and a commercial pilot, will stay active with the orchestra and conduct occasional concerts like the annual choral program with St. Martin’s University, where she teaches. Despite many other musical gigs (church organist, jazz singer and pianist, clarinetist and opera director), Simpson-Jones is committed to the OCO. “This is a good orchestra,” she says. “I’d put it up against any other. And our unofficial motto is kindness. We like each other and have fun.”

What: Olympia Chamber Orchestra fall concert

Where: Kenneth J Minnaert Center for the Arts,
South Puget Sound Community College,
2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4

How much: $5-$20

Learn more: 360-753-8586 | OCO

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