Walla Walla Choral Society History

The Society as we know it today began in 1980 when Lee Friese was conductor of the Walla Walla Symphony. Friese, who enjoyed conducting choral groups, organized a group called the Walla Walla Symphony Chorale that performed a Christmas concert with the full Symphony and two or three concerts with a chamber orchestra or piano accompaniment each season.

When Friese left the Symphony, the directors desired to keep a choral unit associated with the group. Dr. Robert Bode was hired as the Assistant Conductor with primary responsibilities for the choral group. Two concerts were presented with the full orchestra each year.

The high point of these years as the Walla Walla Symphony Chorale with Bode was a trip to New York in May 1990 to perform at Carnegie Hall. The chorus sang Brahms’ Requiem in a 300-voice chorus of several combined choirs, and were fortunate to sing the New York premieres of John Verall’s The Legend of Chief Joseph and John David Earnest’s The Waking, accompanied by Yaacov Bergman conducting the Manhattan Philharmonic.

After several years it became evident that this relationship did not allow Bergman, the Symphony’s Artistic Director, enough freedom to craft the season’s concerts when two were committed to the choral group.

Bode resigned and steps were taken to form an independent singing group which would be called the Walla Walla Choral Society. Bode would serve as the founding director, and Dr. Lee Thompson the accompanist. Wilmalu Tomlinson was the Choral Society’s first president. The Choral Society was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1990.

Bode took a sabbatical from Whitman College during the 1993-94 season, and Joe Miller signed on as the interim conductor. Under his direction the chorus staged its first Pops concert in the lobby of the Marcus Whitman Hotel, singing 21 Cole Porter numbers for two packed houses.

The next season, 1994-95, Jon Brotherton was the interim conductor while Bode and Thompson spent a year at Ohio State. That season’s highlight was the Magnificat concert, featuring the John Rutter and J.S. Bach versions of Mary’s Magnificat from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. The spring Pops concert, held in Cordiner Hall, featured a section staging Native American dancers, Hispanic folk dancing and other local talents.

Bode resumed conducting duties for two more seasons, resigning because of his increasing workload at Whitman College and the Mid-Columbia Symphony.

Dr. James Carlson took up the baton for the 1997-98 season, with Dr. Christine Janis as Associate Conductor. Carlson resigned after the Christmas concert with the Walla Walla Symphony, and Janis conducted the subsequent Pops concert. Bode returned to direct the final concert of the season.

Janis was selected to be the group’s permanent conductor at the close of the 1997-98 season, and over the ensuing years guided the chorus in a rich variety of choral music. She took a sabbatical during the 2008-09 season. Three guest conductors — Paul Dennis, Dr. Kraig Scott, and Ronda Gabbard — filled in for one concert each during that season.

After Janis resigned following the 2012-13 season, three candidates for Artistic Director — Dr. Jeremy Mims, Dr. Dean Luethi, and Rob Dennis — conducted one concert each during the 2013-14 season. The season’s final concert was guest-conducted by John Neumann.

Mims and Dennis were chosen by the Board to serve as co-Artistic Directors for the 2014-15 season, but Mims accepted a position at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa. Dennis served as Artisic Director for the 2014-15 season.

Terry Koch has served for a number of years as the group’s Librarian and Assistant Conductor, and has provided essential services such as rehearsing the male voices, organizing and distributing music, and other methods of support.

WWCS accompanists have included Thompson, Jackie Wood, Laura Curtis, Terri Koch and Kristin Vining.

Presidents who have led the Society include Wilmalu Tomlinson, W.N. McCaw, Elissa Stites, Chuck Templeton, Larry Riggs, John Junke, Heather Schermann, Debbie Rood, Jim Crislip, Su Meredith, Diane Marr Longmire and Estée Pummel.