Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra celebrates 65 years of being a classic

2022 marks the 65th anniversary of the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra. The group got its start in the living room of its founder, and today brings dozens of musicians from around the region together to play. The orchestra puts on multiple concerts a year with a mission to provide its community with access to high-quality orchestral music.

Musicians from the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra perform
The Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra has been making and sharing beautiful orchestral music for 65 years. In March 2022, the orchestra put together the concert Equus, which revolved around music about the noble horse.
Contributed / Dennis Benson
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WILLMAR — For the last 65 years, the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra has brought soaring crescendos from composers such as Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Bach to the local community.

"Having a live orchestra in a community is a feather in that community's hat," said Frank Lawatsch, current WASO board chair and a violin player.

Hundreds of local musicians have shared their talents and passion for orchestral music with the friends, family and neighbors and it is a tradition they plan to continue.

While WASO now plays most of its concerts at the Willmar Education and Arts Center, in its earliest days its stage was a bit novel. The orchestra was founded in March 1957 by Dr. Lawrence and Margaret Opsahl. Rehearsals were done in their living room and concerts took place on their front lawn.

"He just loved music," said Barb Holmgren, WASO flute player. "That is why he encouraged people to take their instruments out of the attic and join him in his living room."


Musicians from the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra perform
Just like any orchestra, WASO is made up for several different instruments including strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. The orchestra is always looking for new members.
Contributed / Dennis Benson

The orchestra has had six directors over its 65-year history.

Lawrence Opsahl led the fledgling orchestra for its first seven years, and was followed by Chet Sommers. Sommers, who was also the founder of the music department at the Willmar Community College, would direct the orchestra for half of its existence, more than 30 years. Robert Whitney took over as director of the orchestra from 1997 until 2003, and was followed by Steven Eckblad until 2013. Sergey Bogza then led the orchestra from 2014 to 2016 before the orchestra welcomed current director Stephen Ramsey.

"Each one has increased our ability," Lawatsch said.

Being the director of the orchestra is full of fun and challenges.

"That is the fun part, being able to conduct the orchestra," Whitney said. "The challenging part is recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Keeping those chairs filled so you can play that music."

Musicians from the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra perform
Th Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra is made up of dozens of musicians from the region. Some have played with the orchestra for decades, while others have joined more recently.
Contributed / Dennis Benson

For Ramsey, it is definitely a labor of love. In addition to WASO, he is also the music director for the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the University of Minnesota Health Services Orchestra and the Dakota Valley Symphony. For about 22 weeks of the year he travels up to 500 miles a week to direct the various orchestras. Despite the long hours spent driving, he feels it is well-worth it.

"This is food for the soul. This is a core, a necessity of life," Ramsey said. "We are warming our souls, we are feeding our souls."

What makes WASO special, Ramsey said, is the passion the musicians have for the orchestra.


"The word 'passion' is a good one. They are very passionate about having an orchestra in Willmar," Ramsey said. "They are willing to work really hard to keep the orchestra going and flourishing."

Conductor Stephen Ramsey leads the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra
Stephen Ramsey, Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra director and conductor, rehearses at the Willmar Education and Arts Center in January 2017. Ramsey has been the conductor of the orchestra since 2016.
Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune file photo
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For those who play with WASO, the orchestra offers them not only the opportunity to keep their musical skills sharp but also a chance to be part of a music-loving community.

"Everybody coming together to make this music is really enriching," Lawatsch said.

One of the best things about playing in an orchestra is working as a group to make a piece of music sound good. It might start out as just a bunch of noise, but by the end it can be magical.

"That is what it is about at every level," Ramsey said. "To hear these golden moments, those 'shivers up your spine' moments. That is what keeps everyone attached to this music making."

Greta Hulterstrum,a flute player, performs with the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra
In May 2021, flute player Greta Hulterstrum was one of the Young Artists chosen to perform with the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra.
Contributed / Dennis Benson

The music is as varied as the musicians playing it.

In the last several years, WASO has performed traditional classical pieces by some of the most famous composers — including Mozart and Dvorak. The scores can be challenging for the musicians to master, but it is a good challenge, Whitney said. It also introduces a wider audience to this type of music.

"You don't hear this type of music too often on television or radio. You have to go to a concert to hear this type of music," Whitney said.


WASO has also been known to branch out from the traditional classical repertoire. The concert held in July, "Movie Magic," featured scores from hit movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Apollo 13," "Jurassic Park" and "Titanic." WASO has also created themed shows around animals, such as "Equus" in April 2022 or the "Animalia" concert in October.

"We play such a variety of music," Holmgren said. "No two concerts are alike."

Audience of school children listen to the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra
The Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra performs "Once Upon a Time" in March 9, 2017, for third-grade Willmar, NLS, and St. Mary’s of Bird Island students at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. The orchestra is dedicated to spread a love of music and arts to the younger generation through its concerts.
Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune file photo

One of WASO's missions is to support and encourage the arts, especially in children. It has held concerts specifically for elementary students, and each year holds the young artist concert. The young artist concert, held each year in May, showcases one or two young musicians who are chosen through an audition process.

Ramsey said inspiring young people to pick up and learn to play an instrument is not just good for the individual but also for groups such as WASO.

"We are planting trees for the orchestra that will be playing in Willmar at its 80th anniversary," Ramsey said.

Over the decades, WASO has invited guest musicians from professional organizations such as the Minnesota Orchestra to perform. Local arts organizations have also shared the stage with WASO, including various dance schools and music groups. Ramsey sees this as not only a way to showcase the arts but build community.

"We are trying to encourage kinds of behaviors we'd love to see the community exhibit. That sense of collaboration, the sense of mutual community ownership that we are trying to make this a better place," Ramsey said.

Ballet dancers perform with the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra
The Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra invites other artists to perform during its concerts. In December 2015, dancers from Colleen's School of Dance 10-12th grade group performed the "Waltz of the Flowers" from Nutcracker, backed by conductor Sergey Bogza and the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra.
West Central Tribune file photo

Various studies across the years have shown music to have both health and emotional benefits. Playing or listening to music can be a creative outlet for people, a way to lower stress and anxiety and be a healthy way to deal with emotions.

"What it is all about is a full and complete expression of the full range of human emotions; being able to capture those in an artistic way. We need that desperately in our society now," Ramsey said. "We all need to express those emotions and bring them forth in a positive way."

Well into its seventh decade, the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra has played its role in the community well. There is hope that it will continue to be that creative, emotional and community outlet the region loves and needs for decades more.

"I think Willmar is very lucky to have an orchestra," Holmgren said. "We want people to come and listen."

Darcy Lease Gubrud performs Je veux vivre from Romeo and Juliette with the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra
In May 2016, Darcy Lease Gubrud performed "Je veux vivre" from Romeo and Juliette with the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra, directed by Sergey Bogza.
Rand Middleton / West Central Tribune file photo

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

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