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‘Come to the Woods’ uses music, poetry to celebrate natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest

Tim Westerhaus and the Collegium Orchestra during “Virtuosic Baroque” on Sept. 30. (Courtesy photo)
Tim Westerhaus and the Collegium Orchestra during “Virtuosic Baroque” on Sept. 30. (Courtesy photo)

Traveling from one side of the state to the other, you’re treated to just about every landscape imaginable.

The rolling hills of the Inland Northwest, the mountain ranges that divide the state, the evergreen trees that give Washington its nickname, the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean on the west side, it’s all there.

As a transplant from Minnesota, Tim Westerhaus, the director of choirs and vocal studies at Gonzaga University, music director of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and artistic director for its St. John’s Music Series, acknowledges this and appreciates the variety.

“I’m of course a musician at heart but probably my second great love is the great wilderness,” he said, calling the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the Wenatchee National Forest, Mount Spokane, Mount Baker and the Centennial Trail some of his favorite places to hike, trail run and cross-country ski.

It was while out and about in these areas last summer that Westerhaus began to piece together a concert for the Cathedral Kantorei Choir and Festival Singers that uses music and poetry to highlight the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

“There’s a beautiful intersection of natural beauty here that clearly comes through in so much music, beautiful poetry and there are some composers that really evoke that,” he said. “It seems natural in autumn season to program two different halves of a program that really celebrate what it means to be both in the Pacific Northwest and also more the Inland Northwest too.”

“Come to the Woods: Pacific Northwest Beauty” will be performed Sunday at St. John’s Cathedral.

Westerhaus sees the two halves of the program as representing both the majestic and earthy sides of the Pacific Northwest.

The concert begins with Paul John Rudoi’s “The Infinite Dwelling,” a piece Rudoi, a friend of Westerhaus, composed specifically for this concert.

The work features text from a 15th century Indian mystic and poet named Kabir.

“[The text] is really broad in evoking the infinite sacredness,” Westerhaus said. “It’s not a sacred text necessarily but it’s that the infinite being is everywhere. You know how people say ‘I find my spirituality in nature, in the wilderness’? This piece opens it up that way.”

“Autumn” is another local piece, composed by Joshua Shank, a lecturer of composition and music theory and the conductor of the men’s chorus at Gonzaga University; “Come to the Woods,” composed by Jake Runestad, features a poem by John Muir.

“Another glorious day, the air as delicious/to the lungs as nectar to the tongue,” the poem begins.

Guest pianist Yi-Chun Chen, who graduated from Eastern Washington University with both a master’s degree in piano performance and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, will perform “Come to the Woods.”

While rehearsing, Westerhaus and the choir had the chance to Skype with Rudoi, who lives in Eugene, and speak with Shank about their respective pieces, which Westerhaus said was an invaluable experience.

“It’s outstanding because there are only so many things that come across on a piece of paper,” he said.

Westerhaus is particularly excited for Ēriks Ešenvalds’ “Northern Lights,” which he said evokes the ethereal nature of the light display.

“It utilizes, in addition to singing, the singers playing crystal glasses, evoking this really otherworldly, crystalline imagery of the Northern Lights,” he said. “Others, about six of them will also play chimes throughout the piece so it’s a really unique color.”

The first half ends with “the most beautiful ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ you’ll ever hear.”

The second half features pieces that express what Westerhaus called the earthy Northwest, beginning with Seth Houston’s “Emerald Stream.”

Westerhaus said the work is a piece of environmental activism, a call to care for the planet for ourselves and the generations that will follow.

A majority of the second half will feature the Cathedral Bluegrass Band performing Wes Ramsey and Tim Sharp’s “High Lonesome Mass.”

“It uses folk tunes but also intersects with the sacred using the format of a mass composition,” Westerhaus said. “Not a liturgy or a service but using that a structure to organize the whole piece.”

Conductor Max Mendez, director of choirs at North Idaho College and founding member and artistic director of Spokane Choral Artists, will conduct this piece.

Mendez is very familiar with “High Lonesome Mass,” having toured internationally with Sharp performing the work.

“He, just in October, was there touring and performing with an American bluegrass band and vocal ensemble for two weeks performing this work so it has an international reputation,” Westerhaus said. “He knows the work intimately well because he’s been working right there with the composer.”

The program will close with “When I Can Read My Title Clear” by Joseph C. Lowry, arranged by Sharp.

“Come to the Woods” is the second concert in the choirs’ expanded fourth season. The choir’s next concert, Dec. 16, will feature a performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”

The expanded season comes in response to members of the choir, which includes choral and voice teachers from area high schools and colleges, wanting to perform together more often as well as Westerhaus’ hope to foster Spokane’s premier chamber choir.

“Forming this group, especially the Kantorei choir, is a chance for really outstanding and passionate musicians to come together to make music,” he said. “That’s one of the things that’s really meaningful for me… It’s really a chance for all of us who are so often teaching others to come together to make great music. We’ve been able to really create this choral community that is a delight and a support for each other.”


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