Violist joins Charles City Chamber Orchestra for winter concert

By Kate Hayden,

When violist Susan Bengtson joins the Charles City Community Chamber Orchestra on Sunday afternoon, it will be the first time she and her sister Ellen have performed together since high school.

“We both played in the Mid-Columbia Symphony Orchestra (in Richland, Washington),” said Susan, now a graduate assistant at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.

Susan will be the featured guest during the chamber orchestra’s annual concert “Winter Tales,” on Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. in the Trinity United Methodist Church. The concert is free to the public.

“It’s really exciting for me, because I get to participate in the music community that (Ellen’s) engaged in in Charles City. I feel like I’m a part of it,” Susan said. “Also, the program itself is unique in terms of content because I’m playing a piece with the orchestra, but I’m also playing a sonata with a pianist, and some solo Bach … It’s featuring a viola in a way that doesn’t always happen.”

Ellen, an environmental engineer with Cambrex in Charles City, is a bassist with the orchestra and told conductor John Chiles about Susan’s studies as a professional musician.

Growing up in Richland, Washington, the two performed off and on in small music ensembles formed by their teachers, and joined the regional symphony orchestra separately in high school.

“(Working together) is about the same as far as in rehearsals and giving each other feedback,” Ellen said. “You’re working together to make the perfect work.

“Maybe the only difference is, when you’re living at home … you know if they’re not practicing, and you can’t get away with as much,” she added.

Susan is currently completing her master’s degree under Helen Callus, and performs regularly in both the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra and the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra. Eventually, Susan plans to teach at a college level.

As well as teaching privately and through music education program Sistema Ravinia, Susan organizes benefit concerts and children’s workshops — including one hosted at the Charles City Public Library on Friday (3:30-4:30 p.m.)

During the Children’s Musical Story Time, Susan will play viola along with children’s librarian Dana Schwickerath as she reads “Owl Moon,” by Jane Yolen.

“I like teaching and engaging younger audiences,” Susan said. “I also like the way it brings a lot of different people together. I can interact with people across the world … It’s really a collaborative, artistic experience you can’t really replicate.”

“(Music) has been a big factor in my development as a person,” she added. “Thinking about teaching — for me, it’s personal to see how positive an impact music can have on kids from all different backgrounds.”