It all began back in 2000 with a small group of six people who had in common a passion for music.
Issaquah friends Joyce Cunningham and Duane Bowen shared not only a friendship, but also a love of playing instruments. With four other friends, they formed a six-person reading orchestra that premiered as the Issaquah Chamber Orchestra in 2003.
“It started out as a reading group … the idea was to enjoy reading together, and it gradually over the years grew,” said Bowen, who conducts the orchestra.
A decade-and-a-half later, the group has grown into the Issaquah Philharmonic Orchestra, a 55-person group of teenagers to nonagenerians. Many of the members are family, with mother/daughter duos, spouses, siblings and lifelong best friends taking part.
“This is truly a community orchestra, everyone in it is doing it because they love music,” Bowen said. “I think it’s important.”
“As an all-volunteer non-profit community orchestra, the IPO still holds true to its founding ideals – we play for the joy of music and friendship,” said Sue Byron, IPO Outreach Committee chair.
At its spring concert on March 19, the orchestra will be joined by a Seattle music legend. Frances Walton, who turned 90 this week, will play the cello solo in Edward Elgar’s “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.”
Walton has been in the area long enough to remember when Village Theatre was “just a little theatre” and the Issaquah School District encompassed just a few schools. After earning a master’s in conducting from the University of Washington under the iconic Dr. Stanley Chapple, Walton came to Issaquah in 1964 to establish the string program in the school district.
“It took me a long time to get there, but it was worth it every inch of the way,” Walton said.
She has left her mark not only on Issaquah, but on the entire Seattle region. As a teenager, Walton was mentored by world-renowned composer Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. She founded the group that became the Bellevue Youth Symphony in 1958, founded Philharmonia Northwest in 1972 and started the Olympic Music Camp.
“We have a tremendous musical background here,” Walton said of the Puget Sound area. “It’s so amazing what we’ve done here.”
Giving back is a major theme for the Issaquah Philharmonic. Each year in the last concert of the season (taking place on May 21 this year), the orchestra partners with the Issaquah Food and Cothing Bank and the Sammamish YMCA to collect non-perishable food for those in need. 2017’s last concert provided the hungry with 1,662 pounds of food.
“This is the kind of thing different orchestra members do — because they love the orchestra,” Bowen said. “It’s a community effort.”
This can also include supporting music programs at local schools. In honor of oboist Vera Risdon, the orchestra raised $1,665 to buy musical instruments for the new Risdon Middle School, which opened in Newcastle last year.
This year, the organization is adding a new philanthropic goal targeted toward bringing more young people into the orchestral world — its first-ever Young Composer Competition. Washington state residents 25 or younger can submit an original orchestral composition for the chance to win $1,000 and to have their song played by the Issaquah Chamber Orchestra.
To orchestra members, the friendships and connections mean just as much as the love of music.
“It’s the people that make IPO special,” Walton said.
The spring concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on March 19 at Skyline High School, located at 11222 228th Ave. SE, Sammamish.