Meet the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra



Stephen J. Ramsey
Music Director/Conductor

First Violin
Lisa Zeller, concertmaster
Frank Lawatsch
Barb Swanson
Michelle Suter
Brenna Wordes
Adam Stiff

Second Violin
JoEllen Kimball, principal
Stephanie Hendrickson
Rhonda Kuechle
Emily Nadolny
Tina Magner
Sofia Carlson

Josh Pierskalla, principal
Bridget Revier

Jeremy Pierskalla, principal
Jacob Loerzel
Tina Lamberts
Derrick Johnson

Meghan Weiss, principal
Jane Rossmeisl

Barb Holmgren, principal
Karissa Poe
Lorie Skaro-Johnson

Oboe/English Horn
Raye Eyrich
Bob Whitney

Heather Shumaker, principal
Joel Gronseth

Bass Clarinet
Molly Shumaker

John Mack

French Horn
Susann Karnowski, principal
Bonnie Hauser
Kit Grode
Mary Pieh

David Nelson, principal
Paul Woolverton

Tim Pieh, principal
Dennis Benson
Gary Lauinger

Marlyn Orson

Andrew Benson

Kristine Benson
Matt Reich


History of the orchestra

The Willmar Area Orchestra began in March of 1957. In the beginning the orchestra met in the home of its co-founders Dr. Lawrence Opsahl and his wife Margaret. A few friends got together to try some simple string ensemble pieces. In a few months there were both strings and winds getting together on Sunday evenings for musical sessions in the Opsahl living room.

Over the years the orchestra has had three different names and six conductors. From 1957-1964, it was known as the Willmar Philharmonic Orchestra. Dr. Opsahl is quoted as saying, "We decided to put our tongues in our cheeks and settle for the name Willmar Philharmonic Orchestra, which had a pleasant ring to our ears, even though it might give our audiences some reason to wonder."

In 1964, the new Willmar Community College brought in Chet Sommers to organize its music department. A collaboration between the Willmar Philharmonic Orchestra and the college began and the orchestra was renamed Willmar Community Orchestra. Chet Sommers directed the orchestra until May 1997, a period of more than 30 years. Robert Whitney stepped in to fill the void left by the retirement of Chet Sommers. He recruited members from surrounding communities and it was decided that the name of the orchestra should become the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra.

After Robert Whitney, Steven Eckblad was brought in and conducted the orchestra for ten years, stepping down in May of 2013. The 2013-14 season was a year of transition with a yearlong audition process.

Sergey Bogza led the orchestra for two seasons from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2016. In the fall of 2016 we welcomed Stephen J. Ramsey to the podium. A position he continues to hold. Much like the group of friends that met in the Opsahl's living room in 1957, today's orchestra members volunteer their time just because they enjoy getting together to make music.

Stephen J. Ramsey (Music Director/Conductor) is the founding music director of the Dakota Valley Symphony. He is in his 31 st season conducting the Symphony and the Summer Pops Orchestra. He is also in his 23rd season as Music director/Conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra of Austin, Minnesota. After assisting James Riccardo on several occasions with his duties as the founding music director of the University of Minnesota Health Sciences Orchestra, Ramsey has been pleased to serve as its music director for the past six years.

A well-known conductor in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Ramsey has led performances at many area colleges, concert halls and churches. He has served as music director and conductor for Lakeshore Players and Applause Community Theater. He has held the positions of Director of Ensembles for Hamline University and Conducting Associate for the St. Paul Civic Symphony. At various times, he has also been the music director for productions by Chimera Theater, Anoka-Ramsey Community College, and the Minneapolis Jewish Community Center’s Chamber Orchestra, mixed chorus, women’s chorus, and their Genesis Theater Company.

Ramsey is an active guest conductor throughout the upper Midwest, and has led the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, the Bloomington Symphony, the Minnesota Youth Symphonies, the St. Paul Jewish Community Center Orchestra, Kenwood Symphony Orchestra, Linden Hills Chamber Orchestra, the Central Chamber Orchestra, the Suburban East High School Orchestra Festival, and the Des Moines Junior High School Music Festival Orchestra.

Ramsey holds a Master of Music degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. He has studied with Leonard Slatkin, William McGlaughlin, Dr. Glenn Block, Dr. Lee Humphries, Max Rudolph, Dr. Maurice Jones, Dr. Samuel Jones, Harold Farberman, Kirk Muspratt, Dr. Eph Ehly, and Dr. James Sample.

Steve is so very pleased to have the opportunity to serve the members of the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra, it’s very active board of directors, and its tremendously supportive audiences. Please welcome him into the Willmar community and tell him what you would like to hear!!!