Spokane Symphony Orchestra Monday, Sept. 4, Comstock Park
The Labor Day concert by the Spokane Symphony, under the baton of music director Fabio Mechetti, was an idyllic manifestation of community. The sun was shining, and thousands of people - natives and visitors - filled the lawn in Comstock Park.
By 4:30 p.m. Monday the better seats, or spots, were going. In the next hour, however, thousands more squeezed in to find a satisfactory patch of grass in Comstock Park. Vying for parking, trudging with lawn chairs and coolers, staking a claim, and sharing close quarters with the teeming masses went with nary a hitch. Civilization to such a degree is a marvel and serves as a credit to the city.
Picnic fare ranged from basic to extravagant, with a few at the upper end of the spectrum competing for recognition. Several notable settings were the Luau on the Lawn, replete with tiki torches and a chocolate cake shaped like a barbecued pig with an apple in its mouth; a Happy Birthday Grams party, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the guest of honor’s 29th birthday, which included gourmet barbecue and a sporadically working fountain; and a couple in a beautiful 15-foot wooden boat sharing, when I passed by, a shrimp salad served on fine china with crystal, silver (including full tea service in silver), and linen.
Oh, I almost forgot the Symphony Safari setup, with suitable big game animal skin prints and three life-size wooden zebras. There were many wonderful picnics, but none cuter than the four young ladies and their dolls having Summer Symphony Tea. Print dresses, ribbons, bows, patent leather shoes, and hats brought distinction to their high tea on the lawn.
Since I am a member of the Spokane Symphony, I can’t in good conscience comment on how well we played. I should be able to say, though, that there were some “oohs” and “ahs” from the direction of the audience during some of the hit tunes from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lion King” by Elton John. And moist eyes were not uncommon as Calvin Custer’s “Salute to Broadway” finished up with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
The bombastic finish of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” drove the crowd to a fervor which could only be topped by clapping along with “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The opportunity to conduct the Spokane Symphony at the Comstock concert is auctioned off every year at Wampum. This year’s high bidder, Bill Mays, bought the experience intentionally. He has had some experience conducting choruses, recently through his work with the Spokane Area Childrens Chorus, but said he has never conducted an orchestra, and it is something he wanted to try.
“I’m having fun,” he said, “but it’s also pretty scary to be up there in front of all of those wonderful musicians.”
It should be scary: Musicians have a reputation for eating conductors alive if they can’t do their job. Mays did better than most, from the player’s perspective, in getting through Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys” with a modicum of control and dignity.
As a performer, there is a special connection with the audience in playing outdoors. When the house lights go down and the stage lights come up in the Opera House, the hall just looks dark. It is difficult to see how many people are out there and nearly impossible to see faces.
There is polite applause at the end of a number - sometimes exuberant, sometimes tentative - but there has never not been applause. Outside, without the constraining walls of a concert hall, people feel more free to talk and move about, even while the music is playing.
From the stage, the performers can hear and see whether they are holding the attention of the audience. If the music is not compelling, conversations pick up and people head for the port-a-potties.
But when the music touches people’s emotions, there are warm smiles, couples embrace and kiss, and children dance. The ability to effect these reactions is the reward for performing.
MEMO: The Spokane Symphony will repeat this concert Sept. 17 at 4 p.m. at Terrace View Park in the Spokane Valley.