A roundtable chat with the three living Spokane Symphony conductors/musical directors, all of whom will take the stage during the 2022-23 season.
Classical music is a genre predicated on legacy. No other performance art form primarily leans on works created centuries ago. But within the symphonic realm, it’s also important to be mindful of living legacies. The Spokane Symphony is acutely aware of this.
Before the COVID pandemic put a wrench in live music, the organization planned to bring together all of its living former conductors/music directors to each take up the baton and conduct a concert in its Masterworks series. That includes the current Brit in charge, James Lowe (2019-present); his German predecessor, Eckart Preu (2004-2019); and Brazilian maestro Fabio Mechetti (1993-2004).
That vision becomes a reality during the symphony’s 2022-23 season. Lowe will conduct the bulk of the Masterworks, Mechetti will lead the symphony through a program of Brazilian and German compositions (Gomes, Strwauss, Wagner) in October, and Preu will take the stage for a German/Austrian combo of Wagner and Bruckner next March.
In anticipation of the Masterworks performances, the Inlander organized a Zoom roundtable discussion with all three composers.
The Inlander Interviews Spokane Symphony Legends
INLANDER: What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the Spokane Symphony?
LOWE: I think the word I would use is family. That’s the feeling we have when we’re on stage.
PREU: I had a similar feeling. The word that came to my mind first was warmth. It’s something that I felt at my audition concert — people were very open for ideas and were really trying to do whatever you asked them to. During my tenure, I found no matter their repertoire, no matter the venue, no matter what I tried — weird or not — they were always willing to try new things. And that was actually the entire organization, not just the musicians. Nobody would block anything. It has been a very adventurous organization.
MECHETTI: That’s exactly the same feeling I had — what now… almost 30 years ago? What impressed me most about Spokane Symphony was this willingness to really make music and not being afraid to tackle the hardest repertoire. A very honest way of making music.
LOWE: I’d just love to kind of chime in on that one, too. In my kind of selection week, when I had my concert, I’d been working in Finland. And I’d had an idea there, and I said it to the boss there, and she said, “Ah, we don’t do it that way.” And then I remember coming to my audition week and talking to Jeff vom Saal, the executive director, and I mentioned the same idea. And he said, “Ah! We don’t do it like that way… that’s really interesting! Try that!” And that was the moment I thought, “Oh yeah, this is a good gig.”
INLANDER: Do you have any favorite pieces or performances during your tenure?
MECHETTI: Spokane Symphony was my first orchestra, so everything was exciting. Sometimes it was the first time they were playing it — things like Rite of Spring or whatever. I remember a program I did that was the Scythian Suite, Rite of Spring and a Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. It was all Russian, from the Romantics to Prokofiev. When we thought about doing that concert, there was some suspicion about it. Are you crazy? Are you really going to do it? And it was one of the best concerts I think we’ve done there.
Another thing that I think was very important at that time was the recording. We did Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was the first recording the city had done at the time.
PREU: It was also my first orchestra, and I have 15 or so years to draw memories from. I’m like a malfunctioning computer where a lot of memories just come back randomly. I remember our Carmina Burana and ... Mahler’s Third.
I loved when we branched out and did the adventurous concerts. When we went to the Big Easy [the current Knitting Factory]. I have great memories of our Concerts in the Parks. The opening of the Fox was of course a big deal; that was phenomenal.
LOWE: I started in September 2019, right before the lockdown. There were a bunch of concerts we did pre-lockdown — a very enjoyable performance with the chorus of the first and second suites of Daphnis et Chloé.
But I think about some of the work we did in lockdown, when we came and we filmed a lot of digital concerts. Although the audience wasn’t there — the magic ingredient wasn’t there — it was this real feeling of carving new ground. Nobody had done this anywhere before. We’d never had to do concerts without an audience. Figuring that out and putting all that together, that was a huge project. I really, really enjoyed that. Also, frankly, the relief of being able to make music again after a year of total silence, that was a very kind of magic moment. I remember the first rehearsal we did, the first note sounding for that project. It was very emotional.
INLANDER: What are some of the bright spots and challenges you faced as the music director at Spokane Symphony?
MECHETTI: I’m sure it’s not much different than what it is today. The positive is the high quality of the orchestra for the size of the budget we have and the size of the community we have. And the difficulty is exactly the budget itself.
But it’s always been a case that Spokane has always been an example of an orchestra that, even within a smaller city, can think big. It’s a model that many orchestras actually envy.
PREU: In terms of highs and lows, I think the absolute low was the strike and how that was handled. When personnel issues and organizational issues come to basically a grinding halt for quite a while, everybody suffers. And so coming back out of that that was really, really tough.
There are plenty of highs, though. First, all this stuff that we did for the first time: the concerts at the Big Easy, Symphony with a Splash, the concerts at Arbor Crest. We did a series of contemporary concerts where the orchestra and the audience would sit on stage. All these adventurous things. I was really, really proud of the organization’s willingness to try new things.
The other high was the opening of the Fox. That was a game-changer for the symphony. Playing at the Opera House just limited the artistic potential of this group. Being at the Fox meant double performances of the classics. So we have two shots at the same program. That makes a big difference. The second performance on Sunday afternoon is always different, and usually better than the first one. And just the acoustics of the Fox were very conducive to really working on music excellence. Really exploring all the wide palette the orchestra has for a sound.
LOWE: Adding on to that, it’s actually quite rare that a symphony gets to rehearse and perform in the same hall. That is a luxury. It becomes part of the personality of the orchestra. When they know that they can rely on how they listen in the hall or how they hear, they have a much better feeling of how they’re going to sound out in the hall. And then you end up with this very rare thing where the hall and the orchestra start to develop a kind of symbiotic relationship.
Running a symphony orchestra is really like walking a tightrope blindfolded whilst juggling knives. It is an extraordinarily complicated, difficult job. You can never quite predict what’s going to come around the corner. A little bit unusually for orchestras in America, our model is inverted. Most symphonies’ [finances] are like 60/40 donated/earned. We’re 60/40 earned/donated. So that meant that when the pandemic hit, it hit us financially harder than some other organizations.
Symphony orchestras are evolving. I think there’s a model from the 1950s, which was your town has a symphony orchestra, and you’re really damn lucky to come and hear us and pay your money. And now I think that has to be inverted — we’re a community organization who happens to do that through giving concerts. You can see different orchestras are embracing that, and some orchestras are resisting that. And the ones that embrace that are really doing fantastically well, and they become an integral part of the community.
I do love the idea that all three living music directors of the Spokane Symphony are appearing in the same season. And I think that that’s a really nice thing. Obviously, we were supposed to do this for the 75th anniversary, but, you know, COVID had other plans. Now we can finally do it in one season. That’s a very special thing for the orchestra.