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Concertmaster provides professional flair for ensemble

Monika Niedzielko will be featured soloist in White Rock City Orchestra concert
White Rock City Orchestra concertmaster Monika Niedzielko will be a featured soloist in the upcoming concert July 21 at St. Mark's Anglican.

It's described as Music for Warm Summer Nights – but the upcoming concert for the White Rock City Orchestra is also a demonstration of the versatility of the ensemble in many genres of classical and pop-classical music.

Taking place Friday, June 21, 7:30 p.m., at St. Mark's Anglican Church (12953 20 Ave.) it's also an opportunity to showcase the growing strength of the orchestra, led by Maestra Paula De Wit, in both ensemble and solo performance.

The fiery Libertango by Astor Piazzola, Borodin's Polovitsian Dances, a concerto for two oboes by Albinoni, an andante and rondo for two flutes by Doppler, and film music by John Williams and Ennio Morricone are all part of the ambitious musical program.

The home-grown ensemble — while not a professional group per se — has had a high bar of professionalism set for it by De Wit, past president (and bassist) Peter Koyander, and current president Eric Heine.

In addition to former and current music students, it also includes professional musicians who reside on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, and who have found they  enjoy participating in an orchestra in their own backyard.

Prominent among these is violinist and concertmaster Monika Niedzielko, who will be featured soloist at the concert in a special arrangement of Debussy's Claire de lune, for piano and strings, by orchestra member Bruce Petherick.

Holder of a masters degree in violin performance from the Music Academy of Krakow, Poland, she belongs to a three-generation musical family, and started playing the violin when she was seven. From her teens, she was performing and touring across Europe in many chamber and symphony orchestras, as well as touring the U.S. and the Caribbean as part of a classical trio.

A member of the orchestra for the last couple of years, since the group's post-COVID return to live concerts in 2022, she had been aware of it since she first came to the Semiahmoo Peninsula around 10 years ago.

"When I came here I was just starting out in Canada, building my name and making a living and making sure I had enough students to build a teaching practice.," she said.

"I always wanted to join the orchestra, because that's how I grew up, paying in a chamber orchestra from the time I was 16. But there never seemed to be enough time, no time to have fun."

Some five years ago, Koyander contacted her to see if she could steer a few of her more talented and experienced students in the orchestra's direction (one of them, Luna Li, then eight, was featured in the orchestra's waterfront concert two years ago) — which led to Niedzielko being invited to sit in on a couple of rehearsals, and, almost immediately, an invitation to become the orchestra concertmaster.

The role, which Niedzielko served in before — for the Capello Tarnoviensis Symphony Orchestra, in Europe — is essentially right-hand person to the conductor, doing a lot of the important work in preparing sections, overseeing tuning, explaining technicalities and rehearsing players before the conductor arrives at the rehearsal, or steps onto the stage.

"During a concert the musicians not only look at the conductor, the section heads always look to the concert master, particularly, for string players, for things like bowing," she said.

"I told them, 'let me think about it' — the orchestra rehearses on Saturday, which is one of the busiest days of teaching."

But after playing the orchestra's first post-COVID concert, Niedzielko found a way to make the schedule work.

Admittedly that includes a Saturday that begins with teaching at 7:30 a .m. and then moves into a string section practice for the orchestra at 9:15 a.m. followed by a two-hour full orchestra rehearsal starting at 10:30 a.m.

The sectional practices — which Niedzielko runs as a way to sharpen up such telling details as attack, entrances and dynamics — have made "an amazing difference" to the ensemble, she said.

"As a professional, I have a lot of experience and I'm always willing to share that," she said. "But everybody is willing to listen and follow."

She is grateful for the enthusiasm of the orchestra members, who have seen a difference in the overall sound, and continue to show up, week in and week out, for the 9:15 practices.

Rehearsal is not just a matter of gruelling attention to detail, she said — there's always coffee, and someone always brings some baked treats, and it's a chance to bond over shared challenges and the inevitable humour that springs from intensive musical rehearsal, no matter the idiom. 

"They're a fantastic group — I feel so pleased to be part of this orchestra," Niedzielko said, also noting the "amazing work behind the scenes" of Koyander and now Heine — and the promotional work in the community by Coun. Ernie Klassen.

"He's become one of the biggest supporters of the orchestra," she said.

Newer members who have added other dimensions to the orchestra include Petherick and second principal violin Julie Vaughn, whom she describes as "a breath of fresh air."

New members are always being sought, she added, with the proviso that they have achieved a Grade 8 Royal Conservatory level on their chosen instrument.  

But the underlying spirit of the ensemble, she said, is the creative sensibility of Maestra Paula De Wit, who also leads the Chilliwack Symphony and the a cappella vocal group Belle Voci — and penned the arrangement of Libertango featured in the upcoming concert.

"We love Paula," Niedzielko said. "She keeps it all together. She's an incredibly talented person, and the way she feels each piece of music is absolutely inspiring."

One of the things that she credits De Wit with is "the fact that she is willing to give a chance and a shot to her musicians to play solo."

"It's one of the hardest things to do and one of the biggest battles to face," she added.

For herself, she acknowledges that Petherick's arrangement of Claire de lune, originally conceived of as a piece for piano, makes for a very challenging, note-heavy arrangement for violin.

"It's so much fun to practice," she said.

"But it is really hard. I'm always thinking, are my fingers going to make it? It's like driving at 160 on the highway. You feel like you're hyperventilating — but you are doing it."









Alex Browne

About the Author: Alex Browne

Alex Browne is a longtime reporter for the Peace Arch News, with particular expertise in arts and entertainment reporting and theatre and music reviews.
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