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Final Concerts
Suzanne Johnson passing the baton

After 13 years, Suzanne Johnson will direct the Cascadia Chorale's Christmas concert for the last time on Dec. 13 and 14.

The Cascadia Christmas Chorale concerts Dec. 13 and 14 will be the last performances for retiring director Suzanne Johnson, who is putting down her baton after 13 years.

It's also the 25th anniversary concert for the chorale, which is sponsored by the Cascadia Methow Music Association. This year's program, which starts at 7 p.m. in the Twisp Community Center, will pay special tribute to the chorale's previous directors, Wayne Mendro, Sue Koptonak, Phil Ager and Ginny Wagner.

Dana Stromberger, who will become the chorale's new director, will share the podium with Johnson this year, and Terry Hunt will direct the Pipestone Orchestra.

Suzanne says that for her portion of the program, she is bringing back old favorites from past concerts, including "Sleigh Ride" and Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus". Members of the audience who have performed the "Hallelujah Chorus" previously will be invited to join the chorale in singing it, she adds.

When she unexpectedly was asked by Wagner to take over the chorale, Suzanne replied, "'I'd probably like to do that.' I got into the music and that was it."

Suzanne, a pianist, and her husband, Don, a fish biologist, had just moved to the Methow from Buhl, Idaho, where they had lived for five years. Both raised in Seattle, they had chosen the Methow partly because Don had two brothers here.

Before their stint in Buhl, the Johnsons had lived in Oman, where Don set up a fish biology laboratory and Suzanne taught music and conducted a choir at a school for foreign students from 45 countries.

No Omani children attended the school, she explains, because they were required to attend Muslim schools, but some were her private piano students. Every child in the school had 80 minutes of music each week. "It's unheard of here," she says regretfully. A highlight of her teaching experience there was United Nations Day, when in a special program, the children performed music from their home countries.

Murray, Kentucky, she says, "Is where I really cut my teeth on musical theatre." While Don was setting up a biological station at Murray State University, she was putting on three musicals a year for a local community theatre.

In 1974, the Johnsons took their five children to Kenya for nine months. Don had a grant to work at the University of Nairobi, and Suzanne was unceremoniously hired to teach music at a Catholic girls' school run by nuns who liked to produce musicals as a means of fund raising – "Viva Mexico" was a particular favorite. The school recently had lost its music teacher, and Suzanne says she showed up for her job interview with credentials in hand. But the nun waved them away.

"I prayed, and you came," she told Suzanne.

The Johnsons homeschooled their children while they were in Nairobi. The older ones had bus passes and were sent out on their own to museums and other educational destinations. Every Friday they had reports due in English, math, biology and culture. At the end of the year, they each had to write a final report on their stay in Kenya – then a cause of grief and woe but now treasured documents for the Johnson children.

“We couldn’t do it today because I wouldn’t let the girls out on the streets,” Suzanne says of their home schooling program in Nairobi. But at the time, “It was wonderful. It taught them one important thing: that they can get along with anybody.”

The Johnsons, who have 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, will move to American Falls, Idaho, after Suzanne’s final Cascadia Christmas Chorale concert to be nearer their family. And they’ve bought a house in La Paz, Mexico, where they expect to spend the winters.

“It did seem like it was time to downsize and get down to the kids,” she says. But leaving the valley, she adds wistfully, will be “bittersweet.”