October 15, 2021
By D.T. Baker, ESO Musicologist and Music Appreciation Online Instructor
It is obvious that an orchestra made up of several dozen musicians will have an equally diverse range of personalities and priorities. It’s not only obvious – it’s necessary. For every member of an ensemble who jumps at the chance for the solo spotlight, it is crucial that they have a solid foundation of musicianship behind them.
Murray Vaasjo (Violin II) is one of many ESO musicians who have provided the orchestra that foundation. Murray has retired following an abbreviated 20/21 season, after 30 years with the orchestra. “I have been with the ESO since 1990 after five years with the Victoria Symphony,” he says, noting that upon his arrival in Edmonton, he wasted no time becoming heavily involved in the music community here. He joined the Alberta Baroque Ensemble, the Arden String Ensemble, and founded the Sherwood Park Youth Strings. It was in the ESO that he met, and married, ESO Principal Flute Elizabeth Koch.
“In 2003, Liz and I bought an acreage in Strathcona County where we still live today,” he explains. “I was volunteering for the Wye Community League when somebody said we should have an amateur classical music string orchestra in Sherwood Park. With help, I founded the Wye String Ensemble and have been conducting it since 2003.”
The beginnings, however, were somewhat less than auspicious. “First rehearsals were in my basement,” he admits. “Friday nights after an ESO concert were spent rearranging my basement furniture for rehearsals Saturday mornings. Now we have incredible support from Festival Place, so my furniture is static.”
Born and raised in Edmonton, Murray had experience at both the Okanagan and Victoria Symphonies before he came back home. He has several highlights to look back upon from his time in the Second Violins.
“The ESO in Carnegie Hall, and the Northern Lights Tour to Inuvik in 1994,” are first on his list. “The ESO Frank Zappa tribute concert was amazing – music way beyond his time and how complex it was. Another wonderful week was playing music from Frozen for school children. We must have played about 10 shows, 1,200 kids at a time, all singing in tune and time. Another highlight was playing with Jann Arden, Famous Blue Raincoat, and Gay Delorme in a nearly empty Jubilee Auditorium concert thinking, and then telling Jann Arden that she will be incredible one day.”
We caught up with Murray right after his latest round of golf, so clearly, retirement is going well so far, though he noted it is odd when Liz has to head off for rehearsal with the ESO and he doesn’t. But many of the things that have kept him going during his time with the orchestra are with him still. “An offshoot of the Wye String Ensemble is a music camp called the Strathcona County String Music Camp,” Murray notes. “With support from the County of Strathcona, it is held at Camp Van Es, on the north side of Cooking Lake. We celebrated 14 years of the camp in September. COVID cancelled the 2020 camp, but we had a safe, fully vaccinated camp this fall.”
Fourteen years, and counting, he’s quick to add. “Many ESO string players have been hired over the years to teach and perform for the four-day event, always held the weekend after Symphony Under the Sky. [ESO Assistant Conductor] Cosette Justo Valdés has been the conductor of the event the last two years. I am very proud of the WSE and the Strathcona County String Music Camp and will continue with these projects,” he says.
Murray’s 30 years providing backbone to the ESO sound will be missed, but he has nothing but gratitude for his time here, stretching back to his University of Alberta days and even before. “I have had a really great ride with the ESO,” he says. “I met my wife Liz here and we have a wonderful son Mark. I have known some ESO members for over 40 years. I like teaching and working with amateur orchestras and will continue to do so. Many thanks to my colleagues, management and all the volunteers over the years.”