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Christian McKee takes the reins at Oregon Mandolin Orchestra's Dec. 8 concert at the Walters.

COURTESY PHOTO - The Oregon Mandolin Orchestra presents and annual holiday show at the Walters; this year with special guests, Caravan Gogh.Christian McKee had always been a performer. But next week, he'll be flexing a new skill set leading the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra in concert at Hillsboro's Walters Cultural Arts Center.

The longtime mandolinist and Portland-area songwriter took the conductor's baton from orchestra co-founder Brian Oberlin back in April. A former playing member of the orchestra, McKee agreed to lead the 25-member ensemble after Oberlin announced he was moving back to Michigan.

"The board of directors had a meeting, and my name came up," said McKee. "I had been playing mandocello in the orchestra for over a year, but then my daughter was born, so I left to pursue other commitments."

The group's annual holiday concert will showcase a broad musical selection with the historically rich and dynamic sounds of the mandolin family, and will also wish a farewell to Oberlin.

The program includes holiday favorites and selections by Schubert, Vivaldi and Dvorak, and will showcase special guests Caravan Gogh, who are known for their original music ranging from gypsy waltzes to acoustic rock and calypso-inspired dance tunes.

"There's going to be some classical in there, of course, but there's also some room for some popular tunes, so the audience will get a broad slice of music from us," said McKee.

The group, an all-volunteer, community orchestra, was established in 2010. Since then, the musicians have presented at least four concerts a year, offering everything from classical to Tin Pan Alley, American folk, Brazilian choro, modern rock and Christmas carols. Now in the musical director position, McKee is looking to broaden that sonic palette even more.

"I especially love how dynamic the interaction is between our players, the music on the page and the audience. That's where the real magic is," McKee said. "The orchestra really is a friendly group of people, and this is the first time that I've ever conducted a musical ensemble. Everyone's been very supportive, and we've had so much experience playing together."Christian McKee

Homeschooled by his parents in Madison, Wisconsin, McKee grew up in a household alive with his father's recordings of Baroque-era pieces, John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery, and his mother's Folk Revival, Beatles and Jefferson Airplane records. As a young boy, he was a choir singer, and also learned to play violin by ear in the Suzuki method.

McKee first picked up the mandolin nearly 20 years ago. He began branching out to the mandocello, and when he joined the orchestra, he set the goal of improving his music reading.

The orchestra is deeply committed to bringing mandolin music to the communities of the Pacific Northwest. Concerts have been held in Portland, Vancouver, Hillsboro, Salem, Astoria, Hood River and other locations.

It also recently announced that it will be representing the U.S. at BDZ Eurofestival, the world's premier string music event set for next year in Bruchsal, Germany. The festival, which is held every four years, was established in 1963 to recognize and support string music played by orchestras, ensembles and individuals. The OMO is scheduled to share the stage with hundreds of musicians from around the world, including Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Belarus, Scotland, Australia, Italy, Spain, Denmark and Norway.

"It's very exciting," said McKee. "We're currently hard at work putting together our program and making arrangements."

The upcoming concert, titled "Holiday Sounds with OMO and Caravan Gogh" at the Walters, 527 E. Main St., is happening on Friday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 the day of show, and can be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com or by calling the Walters box office at 503-615-3485.

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