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Updated Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 07:01 AM

OSSCS heads toward bittersweet future

By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times

“Bittersweet” is the word violinist Stephen Hegg uses when reflecting on a world of possibilities facing Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers.

“While we miss George and we are as good as we are because of George, now we’re finding out new things about ourselves,” Hegg, an OSSCS board member, says. “We’ve really become a different group.”

“George” is the late George Shangrow, a revered figure in the Seattle music community and the longtime conductor and music director of OSSCS. Shangrow founded the nonprofit arts organization in 1969 as a vocal ensemble that could perform Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, as well as contemporary music and world premieres.

Shangrow formally added a community-based orchestra to the group a decade later, and guided the whole works until 2010, when he died in a car accident.

His successor will be selected in 2013 from among six finalists who each have an opportunity this season to conduct the orchestra and choir in public performances. OSSCS’ next show is Dec. 16.

Singers and instrumentalists will be led in a program called “Winter Celebration” (including music of Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi and Vaughan Williams) by Huw Edwards, music director of the Olympia Symphony Orchestra.

If the process to identify a new OSSCS conductor — involving extensive interviews, documentation and multiple surveys of the musicians — sounds tidy and methodical, well, it is. But it was born of a personal and institutional angst that followed Shangrow’s unexpected passing, leaving a respected arts organization without its guiding spirit, its very soul.

Last season, OSSCS found itself facing a string of guest conductors for the first time, keeping the wheels turning while getting used to diverse sensibilities at the podium. A year ago, an international search for a new leader yielded an initial 50 applicants.

“The group really held together after George’s death,” says Rob Harahill, managing director. “That was one of the smartest things an organization could do. Instead of bringing in someone new right away, we took time to reflect and work with different people. We’re now able to look at different styles and artistry and approaches to group management.”

“A conductor has a particular way of interpreting and communicating, and you build a relationship with someone you’ve come to know very well,” Hegg says. “Anytime you start making music with other people, you develop a new communication, and you find out things about yourself and your own music-making you didn’t know before. That’s the bittersweet part of this.”

The first finalist to appear here, Jeremy Briggs Roberts, music director of the Washington Idaho Symphony in Pullman, conducted in October. He was followed in November by Paul Polivnick, longtime director of the New Hampshire Music Festival.

After Edwards this month, remaining candidates include Johan Louwersheimer, co-founder and conductor of the Chilliwack Metropolitan Orchestra (February); Clinton Smith, principal conductor of the St. Cloud Symphony (March); and Eric Garcia, former assistant conductor of Seattle Symphony Orchestra (April).

“We’re looking for somebody with a vision for building audiences in a tough time, and making the music we play come even more alive,” Hegg says.

“George himself would want us to move on and pick whoever is best and not just do exactly as he had done,” says Janet Young, OSSCS trumpet player and board member. “We all miss him very deeply. But we’re a strong and independent organization. This has been a great opportunity for us to understand that.”

Concert Preview

Winter Celebration

Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers present “Winter Celebration,” 3 p.m. Dec. 16, at First Free Methodist Church, 3200 Third Ave. W., Seattle; $10-$25 (info and tickets at osscs.org).


John Cornicello
Seattle Chamber singers will be led by conductor candidate Huw Edwards Dec. 16.




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