Music director conducts spring concert series
Rather than traveling around the world to conduct concerts—from Osaka to Trondheim, Moscow to Indianapolis—Spokane Symphony's music director and conductor James Lowe spent the pandemic year in Scotland living near the parents of his wife, Charlotte, in the hamlet of Bedrule in Southeast Scotland, where she has lived 40 years.
The year included their wedding between lockdowns during August in a small garden gathering there.
"In Scotland, lockdowns were early, strict and long," James said, noting that kept them in one place, reconnecting with nature and relating with her parents in the isolated village looking over green hillsides, an ancient church and castle ruins near the border with England.
"I spent a year in one place for the first time since I was 18," he said. "It was a good place to be in the pandemic, because it's in the least populated part of Scotland with no neighbors and countryside right outside."
The first strawberry last spring was picked and cut in quarters for his in-laws, wife and him to share and relish.
James grew up in Lowdhan outside Nottingham in central England. Since graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he has traveled and lived all over the world, including Boston and Berlin. He started with the Spokane Symphony in 2019 after serving Vaasa City Orchestra in Finland. The 75-year-old Spokane Symphony is his focus now.
In 2020, he virtually conducted the Spokane Symphony's New Year's Eve Concert from Scotland—still available online—and guest conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with which he was previously associate conductor, for an online concert.
His interest in classical music came at the age of eight in a village primary school assembly, when he heard a recording of the William Tell Overture by Rossini—the "Lone Ranger" theme.
He bought a record and played it until it wore out, not realizing it was part of a whole genre of music—classical. He also sang in the choir at the village's Anglican Church, that dated from 1154.
During lockdown, James sang with the virtual choir of the Episcopal Church of Scotland in Melrose 15 miles from his home.
"I would record to a pre-recorded click track, and someone would edit the singers' recordings together. It's different from music making," he said.
In a recent conversation with him, Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, the Symphony Chorale's director, commented that "singing to a metronomic click track rather than being in a room and sensing how people are breathing is not the same as music-making."
"Digital is better than nothing, but it does not replace live," said James, appreciating now working with the live, smaller, distanced, masked Spokane Symphony to film music "audiences" can watch on their TV screens at home.
After flying to Seattle and spending two weeks quarantining there, he is in Spokane on a National Interest Exemption that allowed his entry for eight weeks to record five digital concerts with five themes for a series of Spring Concerts.
"We are on the stage in small groups following strict COVID regulations related to the number on stage, six feet apart for strings and percussion and nine feet apart for woodwinds and brass players, who remove masks only to play. All others are masked all the time," James said. "We also have testing twice a week."
The orchestra rehearses 45 minutes and then takes a half hour break—keeping social distance.
"At least we are making music in the same place, following many protocols. It's great having the musicians back in the Fox and great to see our colleagues and friends on the stage," James said.
While some have been vaccinated, which will eventually change what is possible, it didn't change things for the six weeks of recording, because some are not vaccinated.
"COVID is unpredictable," James said. "Usually an orchestra plans a year or two in advance. Now we have to build flexibility into what we do and be ready for curve balls. It's hard to plan how soon people will feel comfortable coming back to a concert hall.
"Musicians rely on two things that we haven't been able to do: be in the same place and be in proximity. At least now we can do music together masked and distanced," he said.
James said that while viola is his first and primary instrument, he has taken time in lockdown to learn the Scottish folk fiddle, which uses a bow in a different way than is ingrained in him from classical music.
"Folk music involves more improvisation, even changing notes and composing in the moment, while classical music seeks to produce a good reproduction of the same music," he said. "Folk music tells a story."
James said the first of the five concerts, which will be available on-demand, starting Friday, April 2, will examine folk roots of classical music. Themes of other concerts are "Classical Perfection," "Individualism," "Light," and "Heaven and Earth."
James said the concerts are a mix of music and ideas as he chats with orchestra musicians and local experts from other disciplines on how the themes relate to their field and the music selections.
For example, for the first episode, Spokane's Poet Laureate and orchestra trumpeter Chris Cook will read a Czech folk tale to set the scene for Dvořák's "Serenade for Winds," and an Emily Dickinson poem that sets the atmosphere for the fourth episode on the theme of "Light."
Anya Rasmussen of the Washington State University physics and astronomy department in Pullman, will also talk in that episode about the science of light.
In the second program, Museum of Arts and Culture executive director Wes Jessup will discuss how the meaning "classical" is different in art and music.
Spokane Falls Community College's chair of the philosophy department Britni Weaver Forsman will talk with James on individualism.
Full lists of the music in each episode and how to listen are at the Spokane Symphony website.
James returns to Scotland in May, and will return to Spokane later in 2021 to work with the symphony as state COVID phases advance to allow the orchestra to perform live in the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
"I love Spokane. Pre-pandemic it was a rich, diverse musical landscape. In COVID, music was the first to shut down and last to open, so musicians have suffered. Many symphony members were furloughed. We have a skeleton office staff on reduced hours and the orchestra is back at a limited percentage of work," James said.
"Orchestras have relied on patronage of donors since before Bach. Most rely 60 to 70 percent on donors, but because the Spokane Symphony owns The Fox, it relies 60 to 70 percent on earning income by hiring out the Fox, booking other artists and people paying to attend symphonies," he explained.
"It has been a blow. We lost $4 million, but took the first round of the PPP loan/grants and are looking at the second round," James pointed out. "Donors have been phenomenal in sticking by us. People love the Spokane Symphony and want to keep the institution alive and thriving into the future. Donations are not far behind a normal year."
At the start of the pandemic, the Spokane Symphony started the Musicians Emergency Relief Fund, raising $100,000 in two weeks. While some musicians play in other orchestras or teach, many have faced financial stress, James said.
For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit spokanesymphony.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2021