Choral ensemble kicks off 30th year

Masterworks Choral Ensemble is celebrating 30 years of singing classical masterworks and more.

The group kicks off its season Saturday with “Love, Lament, Laughter and Light,” a wide-ranging program that includes pieces performed 25 years ago at the opening celebration for The Washington Center for the Performing Arts. The ensemble, which this year has 100 members, was founded with the idea of focusing on great classical works.

“There was a perception that there was a need for a community chorus that would tackle major works,” said founding member Jim Pharris.

Both Pharris and artistic director Gary Witley – who served as co-directors in the group’s early years – were members of Olympia Chorale, which was shifting its focus away from classical music and towards Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

These days, Masterworks performs traditional classical music, new compositions and popular works, particularly in the pops concert that wraps up each season. That diversity is reflected in Saturday’s program.

The program spans from traditional hymns to John Denver’s “Perhaps Love.” Also included: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, performed by pianist and Youth Music Contest winner Theo Ragan, an eighth-grader at Marshall Middle School, and Eric Lane Barnes’s “Lambscapes,” which covers “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in musical styles from gospel to Gregorian chant.

“This concert shows all the diversity that exists in the world of song,” said Pharris, who will give a pre-concert lecture looking at how songs address themes from love to sadness.

“We’re always looking at finding that balance between doing traditional compositions, which are wonderful, and trying to bring in new audiences,” Witley said.

“The elder citizens seem to be supporting the symphonies across the United States more than the younger generation,” he said. “As a classical choral group, we fall into that same classification. One of the things that we’ve been successful in doing, and that all successful symphonies have been doing, is to appeal to a wider audience than just the senior citizens.”

The ensemble’s April concert focuses on major orchestral works, and this year will include the new composition “Wingspan.” Each season also includes a holiday concert, the Harmony Sweepstakes a cappella singing competition, and that pops concert, which this year will focus on standards of the 1930s through 1950s.

“When I first suggested to our board way back when that we add a pops concert, there was some concern about how a serious choral ensemble could do a pops concert,” Witley recalls. “I said, ‘If major orchestras can do a pops concert, I think we can, too.”

Love, Lament, Laughter and Light

What: Masterworks Choral Ensemble opens its 30th year.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, with a pre-concert lecture by Masterworks co-founder Jim Pharris at 7 p.m.

Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. S.E., Olympia

Tickets: $18, $15 for students/seniors

Information: 360-753-8586 or


Rest of the season’s shows: “On a Winter’s Night,” Dec. 4; Harmony Sweepstakes, March 12; “Wingspan and Come, Union,” April 16; “Your Hit Parade,” June 18

Season tickets: $83, $60 for students/seniors

Also coming up: 30th Anniversary Dinner & Auction, 5 to 10 p.m. Oct. 30, The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. N.W., Olympia, $40.