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Inland Northwest Musicians bring Christmas music magic

December 21, 2023

By: Katherine Trowbridge

The Inland Northwest Musicians (INWM) joined the Connell Community and members of the Connell High School Choir at the CHS Auditorium on Sunday, Dec. 17 for a magical evening of Christmas music. The annual holiday concert in Connell is a holiday tradition for the INWM and many local residents who look forward to it each year.

Musicians came from as far away as the Wallowa Valley, Baker City, OR and Walla Walla. INWM is a group of over 80 volunteer musicians who enjoy bringing quality music to smaller rural communities. One of their most beloved musical seasons is their holiday concerts. Associate Conductor Phillip Simpson stated, “The Christmas Concert, of all times of the year, that’s the time of year that touches the audience the most.”

This year’s concert included a selection of songs from The Nutcracker, along with a selection of Russian Christmas Music performed by the Orchestra.

Mark Nagy, a member of the Russian Orthodox Christian Church, joined the choir this season, and performed the Oboe solos during the Russian songs. He shared, “I am very honored to be able to play with such a group of talented musicians. This is the first orchestra I’ve had the opportunity to play with, and I’ve been playing all my life.” Simpson directed the Russian portion of the concert and shared, “It is fun to play these.”

The Russian portion of the concert, especially touched Masha Schonder, an immigrant to Connell from Russia who truly enjoyed hearing a part of her homeland during the concert.

The Chorale performed “Go Tell It!” as well as a new song they discovered this year entitled “A Christmas Prayer.” Music Director, Conductor R. Lee Friese said of the song, “It has great meaning,” as he encouraged the audience to “listen for the feeling as well as the words.”

Connell High School Choir students joined the Chorale (pictured) on “Sing a Jubilant Song “ and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

To conclude the concert, the choirs encircled the audience as the orchestra played and the audience was asked to join in a round of caroling including “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Audience members expressed how the concert touched them. Both Tamara Millage and Claudia Bingham stated they just closed their eyes and felt the music all around them. Millage added how she especially enjoyed seeing the violins perform. “The sound and visual part of it were so amazing.”

Pam Welch stated it is “the best concert, fabulous!”

Aubrey Eppich, a music teacher at Mesa Elementary, joined the orchestra this year. She stated, “It was wonderful to get back to playing with an orchestra. They were wonderful and gracious and it brought me joy this season.”

Mackenzie Pollock-Schaible was among the high school students who got to perform. She exclaimed, “It was amazing” adding how she loved getting to hear the orchestra.

Kaylyn Nef, also a CHS choir student stated, “It was nice to be in a choir who is more advanced.”

CHS Choir teacher Shandeece Mauia shared, “It was great. It just really brings out the spirit of the season. The selections were fun and the kids loved singing with them and rubbing shoulders with experienced musicians.”

Bringing students into the mix is a big part of the INWM. Students make up about 10 to 20% of the group that can range in age from young teens to people well into their 80’s. Concertmaster Alice Massey shared at the start of the concert, that the INWM is in their 25th year, and their volunteer members are like a “musical family.”

Jacoby Merwin, was part of a homeschool group and when it came to music, opted for the violin. INWM conductor R. Lee Freise was giving the lessons and he quickly was promoted from lessons to the youth/preparatory Willow Creek Symphony, an outreach of the INWM that allows them to foster and grow young musicians. Merwin moved into the Orchestra and has been playing for about eight years, give or take a few off years. Merwin performs on a violin that was donated to the group by Ella May, who started playing at the age of 82. The group shared, “It is never too early or too late to begin playing. We welcome everyone.”

Merwin, along with his partner, are putting together a memory piece of the last 25 years. He shared that a big part of INWM is bringing the music to the youth of today - “they create and nurture that orchestral environment for the young people.”

Kyle Ketchersid, who plays Bassoon shared that he has been playing on and off with the INWM since 2014. When he first began, he played a Bassoon that was donated by a family in Walla Walla in memory of their loved one. Patrick is now playing that Bassoon. Ketchersid began with the saxophone and in 7th grade picked up the Bassoon, joining a local youth orchestra. He plays in the Mid Columbia Symphony, and others. He found that the orchestra was more fun for the Bassoon than the band. Ketchersid is also in the Army National Guard and plays with the 234th Army National Guard Band.

Ketchersid added, “It’s always nice coming to Connell. There’s always a warm reception here and with the high school choir, it is unique.”

The INWM operates through grants, donations, and sponsorships to cover travel and other costs. You can find out more about their group at:

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