A Chehalis native’s recent tour of Mainland China along with 50-plus fellow musicians from the American Festival Orchestra was a “remarkable” experience that she hopes is the first of many international tours she’ll be a part of in future years. 

The trip for flutist Lesley O’Donel and her peers consisted of a 10-day journey to several Chinese cities, including Beijing, Ordos and Bautou, among others. The group of performers had just two rehearsal sessions on Dec. 22 before hopping on a plane to the world’s most populous country. 

“There were hundreds at each venue and they were packed each time,” shared O’Donel in describing the five concerts she played in. “The audiences were larger and there definitely was a lot of energy. They were very friendly and wanted to take pictures with some of our musicians, especially the ones who had solos.” 

The musical excursion was the culmination of close to 30 years of playing the flute for O’Donel, who in addition to performing locally with the Olympia Chamber Orchestra and the Northwest Wind Symphony, can also be seen showcasing her skills individually at art galleries and other smaller venues. 

And when the well-traveled instrumentalist isn’t dazzling audiences with her assortment of her expressive flute-based renditions, she’s sharing her musical knowledge with a new generation of players at Centralia College, where she teaches students how to read music, as well as how to create it. 

One of the aspects of the China tour that O’Donel was particularly appreciative of was the array of offerings that were featured on the orchestra’s setlist, as the ensemble began their shows by playing native Chinese pieces, which were followed by western compositions in the second half. 

“It was kind of a shared program. With Chinese music, there are melodies that are pentatonic (a musical scale consisting of five notes per octave) that maybe have a few less notes than what the western ear is used to. But their melodies are quite compatible with our harmonic structure, so there’s a bit of familiarity too,” she said.  

As for the different approach it requires to play in a large orchestra of violins, cellos, horns and other instruments as opposed to entertaining crowds as a solo act, O’Donel observed that any musician performing in concert with others must think on a “grander scale” in order to be a successful contributor. 

“It’s about being that thread, however thick or thin, in that whole tapestry of sound,” explained the third-year Centralia College professor. “You have to be considerate of a lot of different parts when you’re playing in an orchestra … when you’re playing soloistically at a recital or in a chamber recital with just a few musicians, you can take liberties that are maybe a little more individualistic.” 

That individualism is a trait that she encourages her students to achieve. In fact, O’Donel views music as a way for an individual to explore themselves, life and the world around them. 

“Even though it has technique, even though there are things that are very intricate or black and white about learning an instrument, it’s more of an endless climb toward self-expression. Every nit-picky thing you work on is going to set you free to express things more clearly,” she added. 

Her most cherished go-to pieces that she enjoys performing include romantic compositions from Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which are renowned for their intense energy and passion, as well as the “very driven and beautiful” orchestral works of Dmitri Shostakovich. 

When mentoring students who may be feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of playing in front of a live audience for the first time, O’Donel advises them to adopt a learn-as-you-go mindset since unexpected occurrences are bound to happen during any given show.

“Each time you perform, you learn something about your connection with the audience, your connection to the piece, a connection to your own nerves, relaxation and focus,” she continued. 

O’Donel will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Corbet Theatre on the Centralia College campus with the Northwest Wind Symphony.

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