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The Spokane Symphony's new music director might live in Scotland, but he's excited to embrace the 'unabashed enthusiasm' of an American audience

Thursday Jul 4, 2019 • Features

By Dan Nailen

On James Lowe's visit to guest conduct the Spokane Symphony and interview to be its next music director, a snowstorm nearly killed the trip. Rather than deter the Edinburgh, Scotland, resident from the job an ocean and full length of America from his home, the snow actually proved to be a bonus. Lowe learned to ski a few years ago in Switzerland, and he's hooked. And hiking the rolling hills of a region called the Borders where Scotland meets his native England isn't unlike hiking the trails of the Inland Northwest.

When the Spokane Symphony announced Lowe as its eighth music director in late June, they got a 43-year-old maestro with an easy laugh, community-minded approach and love of the outdoors. He'll live in Spokane roughly one-third of the year, Edinburgh another third and travel for conducting jobs in Finland and elsewhere the remainder of the year. We talked to Lowe about what lies ahead; this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

INLANDER: As a music director and conductor in a smallish city like Spokane, what do you see as top priority for the job?

LOWE: The priorities should be the same for all orchestras, which is that it's about engagement with the people. An orchestra is nothing without an audience. The function of music is not just as an entertainment, not just playing music at people. I think it's, "What are we doing in the community? What impact are we having on people's lives? How can we improve and enrich someone?" And that community connection is actually much better and easier in a town like Spokane. In a place like New York City, how can you possibly engage meaningfully with people on a long-term basis? It's almost impossible. Here, what I love, because this is what I think music is about, is that there is an almost direct connection from the orchestra to the community, and vice versa.

Was the Fox Theater part of the job's appeal?

Are you kidding me? It's just an amazing building by any metric. Not only does it look stunning, but it has fantastic acoustics. Pretty buildings don't generally sound so good. There's a huge advantage to the fact that the orchestra rehearses and performs in the same space. It means that, as an orchestra, the level at which you perform is much higher. In the U.K. we have great, fantastic orchestras, but they're often rehearsing in a sports hall. I have to say, London does not have a single concert hall as good as the Fox.

And not only do you have this amazing space that we can use, but we have this amazing space that we can invite guest artists into. I love the fact it's a space that's used for so many different things. I'm not a snob when it comes to genre. I don't think classical music and symphonic music is superior. It's different, and you get different things out of different genres of music. I love the fact we have these fantastic acts coming through the Fox, because what I want to see is people feeling that the theater and orchestra belongs to them, they feel at home there. They don't feel it's an intimidating space, or like going to some weird church and you don't know how to behave.

How do you appeal to people who don't know classical music to come see a show?

Classical music has, in my view, an entirely false image that it's kind of for yacht-owning One Percenters with liberal arts Ph.D.s in musicology. I don't think that's true at all. Classical music can speak to everyone. If you have life experience, there's a piece of music that will connect with that. If you've got a pair of ears and beating heart, you've got all the equipment you need to enjoy classical music. So part of it is de-mythologizing this music as a ritual for a certain kind of person. It's not. It's just music, and it's some of the greatest music ever written. And there's something magical about having an audience, a communal experience. That feeling you get, you can't recreate that. No stereo system will do that.

You've worked all over the world. Are American audiences different?

What I love is, American audiences are unabashedly enthusiastic. If they like something, you get a standing ovation. In all my years [conducting] in Finland, I think we've had one standing ovation. People have been loving it, it's just different. Go to the U.K., a standing ovation is a rarity. I have a theory that particularly Northern Europeans mistake cynicism for sophistication. That's a terrible mistake because enthusiasm is not unsophisticated. That's why I love being in the states, there is an unapologetic enthusiasm for things that people like that is wonderful. Because I'm like that. ♦

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