Susan Friesen desperately wanted to get into her school’s band.
Not because she loved music. Not yet.
She wanted to get out of the general music class where a teacher had wronged her.
“I remember we were preparing for a program and she told me to mouth the words and not sing,” Friesen said. “I just really didn't care for her.”
She laughs at a memory that has since lost its sting.
Now, as a self-proclaimed “older lady,” Friesen, 71, is the executive director of the Salem Philharmonia and also plays French horn for the orchestra.
The all-volunteer Salem group is in the middle of its 2019-2020 season. The next show will feature two pieces by the composer Aaron Copland as well as Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5. The concert runs for two shows this weekend, a 7 p.m. show Saturday and a 3 p.m. show Sunday.
Adult tickets cost $20 and can be purchased online. Youth ages 17 and younger get in free.
The main attraction, Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” features orchestrally-spun folk tunes and snippets of President Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches, as narrated by local actor Dick McMahon.
“‘Lincoln Portrait’ uses at least one tune Lincoln really liked, ‘Camptown Races,’ but it’s kind of disguised in the music,” Friesen said. “Copland took music like that and built on it, using fragments here and there or stretched the rhythm so it’s slower.”
February marks the orchestra’s eighth year in operation.
Friesen has been director of the relatively young orchestra for about eight months. Before that, she was chair of the nonprofit’s board. She switched places with the former director, who lives in Junction City and couldn’t maintain the role from that distance.
Friesen has lived in Salem since 1979 and originally hails from Dallas.
Since she began playing for the Salem Phil in 2012, “The orchestra has really improved,” she said. “We’ve got full string sections, where we were begging for violins” in the early years. She attributes the orchestra’s growth, in part, to Salem-Keizer Public Schools’ investment in music programs.
The Salem Phil now consistently engages a core group of around 50 musicians. They vary in professional experience - the Salem Phil is not the Oregon Symphony, Friesen warns.
“When I first started in the orchestra, I was kind of amazed at what we were playing. Probably stuff we had no business playing,” she said. “But it’s been fun for me and I know for the other musicians to be able to play some of those famous classics.”
The orchestra’s musicians are scattered around Willamette Valley with some in Salem and others in Corvallis, Eugene, Albany. One woman drives from Lincoln City once a week for rehearsals. Travis Hatton, the Salem Phil’s artistic director and the only member of the group who receives a stipend, lives in Vancouver.
Their day jobs vary. Chemeketa Community College students can participate in the orchestra for credit. Many players are current or retired music teachers, while others have only ever played recreationally.
Music education at the elementary level was Friesen’s vocation for almost three decades.
“I really enjoyed it, especially later in my teaching career where I discovered some new approaches to teaching general classroom music,” she said.
That method was called the Orff Schulwerk approach.
“It’s an approach to music where kids are directly involved. They're playing instruments, little xylophones and all sorts of different instruments, and moving to music.”
But elementary music education had its drawbacks.
Many Oregonians have memories of their mandatory instruction on the recorder. As a teacher, Friesen remembers it too. She recalled the time her principal told her a school board member had complained about one of the songs she taught students.
“He was thinking it was something not appropriate,” she said. But the complaint turned out to be about “Hot Cross Buns” - she laughs - “because it was so annoying.”
After 28 years as a teacher, she switched to school administration. She retired in 2011.
Friesen played in community groups on and off throughout her career, but since retiring she’s racked up musical commitments. Now, in addition to her roles with the Salem Phil, she plays for the Lake Oswego Millennium Concert Band, the Salem Symphonic Winds, and a wind quintet connected to Lake Oswego group.
Music “was my first love,” she said. That love started in junior high. She remembers walking to school early so she could practice in the empty auditorium.
“I'd stand on the stage, play my horn and pretend I was concertizing,” she said.
Several decades later, she no longer has to pretend.
For the Salem Philharmonia’s performance schedule or to get involved as a musician, visit salemphil.org.
Contact Casey Chaffin: [email protected]