By Lynn West
For 35 years, our friends and neighbors have joined together to create amazing musical programs through Masterworks Choral Ensemble (MCE) for us to enjoy. Singing is in their blood, and whether they joined together in a basement choir as they did in the early 1980s or on stage at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, performing gives them joy.
Barb Theiss, a charter member of MCE, was instrumental is forming the Ensemble. “Each year our choir invited the community to join us in singing The Messiah, so after a few years we asked if anyone was interested in forming a permanent choral group,” she told me. “Surprised, but delighted, we had 55 positive responses, so Gary Witley, Jim Pharris, and I began organizing what is now the Masterworks Choral Ensemble.”
“I have never sung in such an organized choir,” said Ellen Matheny, one of the five new members of the ensemble this year. “Since I work full time, it is important that I know the path ahead in all my commitments, and Masterworks keeps the website updated, expectations are clear, and music is always available.” Ellen moved to town a year and a half ago, and when she saw the call for auditions, she tried out. “Even though it is challenging and time consuming to study and memorize the lyrics,” she explained, “it is only payback for the joyful moments when I am harmonizing with others. It is enchanting.”
Alejandro Rugarcia, another fairly new member of the Masterworks Choral Ensemble, echoed the heartfelt joy of singing with others. Meeting some Masterworks’ vocalists at a party, he decided it was time to return to his musical roots and audition. “I toured around the world with Juan Gabriel as a member of the National Association of Actors and Actresses in Mexico as a dancer and musician,” he explained, “but I then came to the United States to continue my graduate studies.” He calls it an “amazing gift to listen to the harmony as they are singing. Even if I have had a hard day, and I am struggling with the English lyrics, being in the rehearsal brings my energy up.”
No doubt the most energetic member of the Masterworks Choral Ensemble is Gary Witley, the director. For the past 36 years, he has been a full time educator, currently at Tenino Middle School, and the director and heart of this organization.
Barb Theiss praised Gary for “his dynamic ability over the years to not only direct, but to inspire the organization.” Gloria Strait, who joined MCE in 1987, agrees. “Gary has a BA in Choral Conducting and is able to maintain the joy of singing in unison even during long rehearsals.” She added, “Rehearsals are so much more professional these days as many members use smart phones or other devices to practice at home and parse the songs.”
Gloria, Sally Alhadeff, and Phyllis Villeneuve are good friends and members of Masterworks, but since Gloria is a second soprano and Sally and Phyllis are second altos, their paths rarely cross at rehearsals. Over lunch, they did get together and shared how MCE is so motivating. “Gloria actually roped me into joining,” according to Sally, “but I realized how much I loved being part of the group when I had to leave for a couple of years because of work commitments.”
Phyllis who sang with the group in 1986 as part of an Evergreen class did not officially join until ten years later. “I was told as a child to mouth the words,” Phyllis laughed. “I did for many years, but I knew I had music in my soul.” Eventually in college, she joined a choir and learned to harmonize and found her voice. “I just had to trust,” she said.“I still hear the harmony before the melody.”
The 65 members of the current MCE each have a unique story, yet according to Phyllis Villeneuve, “they share the joy of watching the same conductor and breathing together while recreating the story of the song.” These musicians and their excellent accompanist, Angi Swan, rehearse for weeks prior to each of their four yearly concerts, pay a fee for participating (scholarships available), fundraise, write grants, and acknowledge the entire experience “feeds their spirit.”
Masterworks Choral Ensemble’s (MCE) 35th Anniversary Season opening concert is definitely a “Save the Date” event. It’s slated for Saturday, October 10 at 7:30 pm. Join this talented ensemble of vocalists from our community for an evening of songs that poke fun at politicians, choir singers and couples, proving that truly “Nothing is Sacred!” Just in time for Halloween, a special version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” will feature an entertaining visit from Dr. Frankenstein and the “creature.”
Reserve your seats by purchasing tickets here.