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Chamber Orchestra brings 'Country and Westerns' to Ponoka

Get set for a dive into the sounds of country/western tunes with the Central Alberta Chamber Orchestra
The Central Alberta Chamber Orchestra will be presenting 'Country and Westerns' at the Ponoka United Church on May 26.

Get set for a dive into the sounds of classic country/western tunes with the Central Alberta Chamber Orchestra.

Featuring special guests Haeley Ginter and Devin Cooper,  the show runs at the Ponoka United Church on May 26,.

Showtime is 2 p.m.

"We will be doing a range of country songs and also themes from westerns," said Jim Bicigo, co-founder of the orchestra along with his wife Karen Gustafson.

"There will be recognizable music from movies like The Magnificent Seven, How the West Was Won, and Silverado, among others. Val Sherman also wrote a song for us about 100 Mile House, B.C. And we will be doing Hoedown from Rodeo by Aaron Copeland.

"The second part will feature country artists including Devin Cooper who grew up in Innisfail. He's now one of the most nominated Alberta country artists, so he's coming up fast," said Bicigo.

"He's going to sing some songs of his own along with Alberta Bound, and then Haeley Ginter, Sharon Brawn, and Danica Hoffart will also be performing. In the end, they are all going to come back and sing Will the Circle Be Unbroken - kind of Grand Ole Opry style!"

Again, as Bicigo pointed out, the classic numbers will be plentiful, with Ginter covering Stand By Your Man, Braun taking on Patsy Cline's Crazy, and Hoffart performing Someday Soon by Ian Tyson.

Gustafson said there are lots of Canadian and Alberta themes bubbling up throughout the songs they've selected. "It's a nice combination of tunes."

Bicigo agreed. "It's the perfect blend."

He added he has wanted to plan and arrange a country-themed concert for years.

"I was thinking that Alberta is the perfect place to do this. We are in the west, we are in rodeo country. It's perfect.

"We also have four high school interns who will be playing three of the songs with us," he said.

"They auditioned for us, and they will also be getting two lessons with a professional orchestra member. They will join us for our rehearsals and then play with us for both concerns (there is another show in Red Deer on May 24.)

Gustafson explained that it's also really exciting because it's fascinating to try various genres of music within the 'chamber orchestra' setting.

She credits her husband's skill at arranging as being intrinsic to the group's ability to capture these other styles so well.

"We have the opportunity to do this because Jim does a lot of the arrangements for the group. We are married, so I know exactly what happens," she added with a laugh.

"Every morning, he gets up, makes coffee, and sits down with his computer to compose or arrange music for several hours. That is how much dedication and work it takes to have this," she explained.

Bicigo said he's inspired by the school of country music that was developed by the legendary Chet Atkins, where they tapped into a lot of orchestration in production.

"I like to see what other people have done, and then I add my twist to it and make it work for us," he said. 

Many members of the group, including Bicigo and Gustafson, were former instructors at Red Deer Polytechnic, which shut down its music program in 2018.

Bicigo, who plays trombone, originally hails from Marquette, Michigan, where he also received all of his music education as well.

It was while teaching at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks that he met his future wife.

They later settled in Red Deer to work at the College, which lasted two years before, as mentioned, the program was ultimately shut down.

Ever since, the couple has kept busy with teaching around the region, including becoming contract faculty at Burman University in Lacombe.

Meanwhile, both Bicigo and Gustafson are no strangers to the country/western genres.

"When I was growing up, my dad had one of two genres playing in the garage most days - country or opera."

But for years, Bicigo wasn't really into it.

"Then I got the chance to play the trombone for Kenny Rogers, and his band was so amazing. They knew their parts by memory, and they knew all of our parts by memory," he said, adding how he was struck by their incredible level of musicianship.

Bicigo walked away with a whole new appreciation of it all.

"I realized then the level of musicianship it takes to do country music. It completely changed my opinion."

Gustafson, who hails from Saskatoon, agreed that country was just a part of growing up. 

"My brother was a rodeo guy, and all we listened to was country. I'd cook dinner while singing along with the radio," she recalled. 

"I love it. I remember having breakfast with someone in Minneapolis where I did my doctorate. We were listening to the radio, and we had a competition about who the artist was, and what the song was - it was all country. And I beat him!

"Country music is about people's experiences. it's about those real-life experiences that we grew up with in the prairies, too."

Bicigo agreed.

"It's about those heartfelt experiences on almost every topic. And it is the Canadian-American story. It's compelling."

Tickets ($20) are available at the church office and online at




Mark Weber

About the Author: Mark Weber

I've been a part of the Black Press Media family for about a dozen years now, with stints at the Red Deer Express, the Stettler Independent, and now the Lacombe Express.
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