Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra strikes a chord in the Fraser Valley

The Lower Mainland abounds with professional, community, and educational groups committed to learning and performing the orchestral repertoire.

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While the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra takes, quite naturally, pride of place among B.C.’s musical ensembles, our orchestral milieu is rich and varied.

The Lower Mainland abounds with professional, community, and educational groups committed to learning and performing the orchestral repertoire.

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Paula DeWit’s Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra is of, and for, the communities in the eastern Fraser Valley, but she is only too happy to share her professional ensemble with audiences all through our region. The 2023-24 season sees a six-concert series, heavy on great choral and orchestral repertoire — complete with a couple of welcome runs to downtown Vancouver.

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“My late husband, maestro John van Liempt, and I founded the orchestra in 1999,” DeWit explains.

“We desperately need more music in the Fraser Valley. In the early days, we could only manage two concerts a year. Around 2015, we added more dates in order to expand our repertoire.”

At this point in the CSO’s evolution, audiences can’t expect huge works by Mahler or Bruckner as budgetary concerns keep the orchestra to a manageable size.

“For a typical concert we’ll have 15 to 20 musicians on stage. There’s a regular core, with additions when the repertoire demands,” DeWit says.

For the most part, the organization performs in large Fraser Valley churches, a logistical element that adds intimacy and a sense of collective engagement.

“We do love the fact that we are physically very close to our audience,” says DeWit. “But, of course, we always want to expand.”

Beyond leading her instrumentalists, DeWit does double duty as conductor of a symphony chorus and the CSO Starlets. These various components work hand in hand, and it’s that synergy that animates much of this year’s selection of repertoire, music in the baroque and classical idioms where limited orchestral forces create the ideal balance of voices and instruments.

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The season launches in late September with Handel’s Dixit Dominus, Sept. 29 at Surrey’s Good Shepherd Church (2250 150 St., Surrey) and at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver on Sept. 30. Like Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, which started Early Music Vancouver’s latest season, Dixit Dominus is an early work, flamboyant and ultra-theatrical, written while the young composer was busy assimilating the Italian baroque idiom.

This will be the fall’s first downtown Vancouver performance for the CSO, and Holy Rosary has become something of a favourite venue for the group.

“It has amazing acoustics,” says DeWit. “Bringing the orchestra to Vancouver for the first time was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.”

An Oct. 28 performance of Mozart’s celebrated Requiem is a Valley-only proposition at St James Catholic Parish, 2777 Townline Rd., Abbotsford. Then it’s on to that great seasonal favourite, Handel’s Messiah, four performances between Dec. 9 and 16, with another welcome run to Holy Rosary in Vancouver, then performances in Surrey, Chilliwack, and Abbotsford.

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After a post-holiday hiatus, the orchestra has one further masterwork slated for mid-March: two performances of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion, March 22 at Surrey’s St. James, then at Holy Rosary Cathedral, March 23.

The season isn’t exclusively sacred masterworks: DeWit and the orchestra offer a mosaic of choirs and an eclectic mix of repertoire April 19, at Chillliwack’s HUB International Theatre, before the season wraps up with what DeWit calls, “our regular piano extravaganza.”

“We had 60 people apply for it this year. One student plays the first movement of a piece and another the second movement, and so on. One 16-year-old is currently composing his own work, including all the orchestral parts.”

Piano Extravaganza’s first instalment is May 17 at the HUB theatre with the second on May 24 in Vancouver.

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