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Sammamish Symphony celebrates 25 years with holiday performances Dec. 4-8

The Sammamish Symphony will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a holiday program featuring traditional music and surprises on Dec. 4-8.  - Photo courtesy of Brent Ethington
The Sammamish Symphony will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a holiday program featuring traditional music and surprises on Dec. 4-8.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Brent Ethington

As the holiday season rolls around, how many people begin to hear the opening notes to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker March” in their head?

For those on the Eastside, they don’t have to go far to experience a live performance of such an orchestral classic, nor do they have to break the bank to do so. This year, the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its silver anniversary with its 25th season of providing classical music to Seattle’s Eastside region.

Like other community orchestras, the beginnings of the Sammamish Symphony were humble. What began as a handful of musicians in 1991 referring to themselves as the Providence Point Players has since grown into a thriving, full orchestra of 60 musicians.

Violinist Paula Libes, who has performed with the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra since 1999, recalls attending rehearsal at the recreational room at Providence Point before the orchestra moved to Eastlake High School. She noted “there was no music on the plateau” at the time.

“We play the same repertoire that a professional orchestra plays,” Libes said. “I don’t think there’s anything like the Sammamish Symphony on the plateau to hear that level of classical music.”

Libes mentions two names she attributes for orchestra’s foundation and growth: founding director Joyce Cunningham and the late music director and conductor R. Joseph Scott, who led the symphony for nearly two decades before retiring in November 2015. Scott passed away from cancer last May.

“[Cunningham] saw an opportunity and was able to pull it together,” Libes said. “And when R. Joseph Scott was available, and he was a known commodity, everyone was thrilled to have him on board.

“He made all the difference because his strength was growing small community orchestras. He started the Bellevue Philharmonic from nothing. He’s responsible for making [the Sammamish Symphony] stronger and attracting better musicians.”

Sammamish resident and tuba player Mark Wiseman has performed with the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra since 2002. Wiseman said Scott was “very driven to make the orchestra the very best it could be,” which helped the orchestra provide the Eastside with high-level classical music.

“I can tell you that when I joined, it was a good orchestra but not great,” Wiseman said. “Pretty much every year it has improved to the point where I don’t think it can get much better without becoming a professional orchestra. We’re pretty much at the top of what you’d expect a community orchestra to be.”

Wiseman called the orchestra “almost a hidden gem in Sammamish,” a term that can be endearing but also frustrating because more people aren’t aware it exists. He added the symphony provides Eastsiders an opportunity to catch orchestra performances at a pretty good bargain.

“It’s not expensive. We’re charging $20 a ticket for adults,” Wiseman said. “It’s a good value and you don’t have to drive downtown and deal with parking.”

Sammamish Symphony music director and conductor Adam Stern is entering his third full season with the symphony. Stern originally took over in the interim for Scott in January 2014.

Stern, who also has led the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra since 2003, said what makes the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra so integral to the community is the identity and common vibe created by the local musicians as they come together to perform. The ensemble is all volunteer.

“Everybody is there for the love of music,” he said. “That’s what we give them every week, just the experience of peeling back more layers and rehearsing more depth. With us, we’ve got five to six weeks to put together a concert, so let’s roll back our sleeves and get to know every single note as well as we can.”

Stern credited Scott for providing audiences with “the widest possible spectrum of music.” He said one of his goals for the programs he conducts is to convey the human element of the composers behind the compositions. His hope for performance-goers who may be less familiar with the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra is that they’re able to take in the experience and hear themselves in the music.

“At this point in our history, we really want to be everybody’s orchestra,” Stern said. “I want to present the kinds of concerts where there is so much variety that virtually anybody can show up and say, ‘Boy, this one piece moved me so deeply, I have to get a recording of it.’”

For the holiday shows, Stern doesn’t exactly reveal what the symphony has in store, but simply says audience members should “come prepared to be warmed by your favorites and delights and surprised by what you don’t know.”

“I have a tradition I’ve done with several orchestras. I always say our Christmas concert is kind of like the presents under the tree,” Stern said. “There is something you know you’re going to get, like the traditional holiday favorites and there are old favorites where it’s very familiar. And then there is something where you go, ‘I wonder what’s in there?’ It’s a mix of the familiar and brand new with some hijinks along the way.”

The symphony will hold performances of its 2016 holiday program at 2 p.m. Dec. 4 at Eastlake High School and at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Meydenbauer Theatre in Bellevue. For more and to buy tickets, visit


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