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Music Director Plays Many Roles In Symphony’s Success

A music director fulfills several roles in an orchestra’s life besides conducting rehearsals and concerts. The conductor is the priestly guardian of the symphonic traditions who at the same time acts as the explorer journeying into new music. As an educator, the music director teaches audiences and musicians about the music they hear and play, but as an entertainer, the director charms audiences and electrifies the orchestra’s players.

The facets of the paradoxical roles of priest-explorer and educatorentertainer show up as much in a music director’s programming as in performance. The offstage decisions of what to play, when and where to play it, and what soloists to play it with, are crucial to the orchestra’s growth and the audience’s satisfaction.

Each of the Spokane Symphony’s six music directors has guided the orchestra’s programming in ways determined by the conductor’s training and temperament and his perception of the orchestra’s strengths and weaknesses.

Other people and events influence programming, too. Orchestra players and board members have their say, either through unofficial suggestions or the orchestra’s programming committee. And the audience lets any music director know what it prefers and what it will and will not tolerate.

But the music director sets the tone of the programming, and each conductor of the Spokane Symphony has left his own legacy as a programmer.

Harold Paul Whelan, the Spokane Philharmonic’s first music director and an experienced violinist, led the orchestra from 1945-61. Whelan’s work with the famous British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham left him with a great fund of Beecham stories and with Beecham’s characteristic openness to repertoire that lay just off the beaten track. For a new orchestra, such Beecham-born enthusiasms as the symphonies of Mozart and Schubert and the music of Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Delius formed a lively counterweight in Whelan’s programs to the standard symphonic fare of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

Whelan garnished the meat-and-potatoes repertoire with pieces Beecham referred to as “lollipops,” shorter show pieces that are the equivalent of dessert. Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” RimskyKorsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture” and even Richard Strauss’ demanding “Till Eulenspiegel” are found on early Whelan programs.

Out of necessity as much as local pride, Whelan began the practice of using first-chair players in his orchestra and other Spokane-area performers as soloists. Even after the Philharmonic began to include such international musicians as cellist Joseph Schuster, soprano Dorothy Warenskjold and pianist Eugene List, Whelan’s roster of soloists continued to include prominent local musicians such as pianist Margaret Saunders Ott and cellist Otto Huttenbach.

Another Whelan tradition, performing works by Northwest composers, has been a continuing part of the Spokane Symphony tradition.

In the orchestra’s second season, Whelan invited George Frederick Mackay, a composer born in the Eastern Washington farming community of Harrington and professor at the University of Washington, to conduct his Cello Concerto and his Suite on Northwest Indian Songs and Dances.

Whelan premiered “Lusty Harvest,” a symphonic poem by Spokane composer (and symphony percussionist) Gerald Hartley.

Donald Thulean, who took over from Whelan in 1962, extended this practice by commissioning and performing larger works by Spokane-area composers. Symphonies by William Billingsly and William Brandt and Wendal Jones’ theater piece “Praise!” received first performances under Thulean’s baton.

Thulean was not afraid of large projects and challenging works. Alongside the standard repertoire, he programmed the first Spokane performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“The Symphony of a Thousand”), Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and thorny miniatures by Anton von Webern. Thulean’s tenure saw a steady stream of new works by such American composers as Donald Erb, Elliott Schwartz and William Bolcom.

The 22 years of Thulean’s leadership also saw the introduction of regular performances of fully staged operas and musicals. These performances introduced Spokane audiences to performers who later were to establish international reputations: Baritone Thomas Hampson sang his first Marcello with the Spokane Symphony, and soprano Karen Beardsley, mezzo soprano Linda Caple and tenor Douglas Johnson made their operatic debuts with the orchestra.

Young instrumentalists who appeared with Thulean included harpist Heidi Lehwalder and pianist Robin McCabe.

Gunther Schuller had only a single season in 1984-85 as the orchestra’s artistic adviser and principal conductor. But he has continued to work with the orchestra in summers at The Festival at Sandpoint since 1985. And he has been an occasional guest conductor for its Opera House performances.

The stamp Schuller left on the orchestra has not only been in the choice of some unusual repertoire by old and new composers (including some works of his own), but also in his willingness to rethink and polish such symphonic staples as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sheherazade” and Strauss’ symphonic poems. Schuller’s eclectic taste also brought to the Opera House stage the hilariously descriptive cackles, barks and meows of baroque composer Carlo Farina’s “Capricco stravagante,” the elegance of Mozart’s Serenade for 13 Winds and the heavy seriousness of Rachmainoff’s “Isle of the Dead.”

Bruce Ferden, the symphony’s music director from 1985-91, brought to his music directorship a background in the musical theater, both opera and musical comedy. Ferden was strongly inclined to music of a highly dramatic content, such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”) and Verdi’s Requiem. Ferden brought out the dramatic element in all the works he conducted.

He continued the symphony’s regular productions of opera begun in the Thulean period, and he brought to Spokane an impressive number of young soloists, such as violinist Joshua Bell, soprano Sally Wolf and pianist Jose Fegali.

Ferden’s international reputation began with his conducting performances of operas by minimalist composer Philip Glass, but his 20th-century programming with the Spokane Symphony included only small portions of minimalism. Works by Glass, John Adams and Russell Peck were programmed along with non-minimal compositions by Loris Tjeknavorian and Libby Larsen.

Ferden continued the Spokane tradition of using orchestra players as soloists, and he instituted a regular series of chamber orchestra programs at the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center with the Symphony at The Met series.

Vakhtang Jordania, music director from 1991-93, was born in Soviet Georgia and educated in Leningrad. Jordania lent a Slavic bent to the orchestra’s programs both in selection of music and in choice of soloists. In addition to scheduling standard works by older Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaininoff and 20th-century classics by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Jordania introduced little-known works by such composers as the Estonian Jaan Raats and the Georgian Sulkhan Tsintzadze.

Since becoming music director in 1993, Fabio Mechetti has expanded the Spokane Symphony’s French repertoire beyond Berlioz, Dubussy and Ravel by conducting works by Faure and Roussel. And he has included music from such South American composers as Alberto Ginastera, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Antonio Gomes.

Prominent North American composers also have been represented.

Works by Joseph Schwantner, David Ott and Christopher Rouse have been heard in Spokane during Mechetti’s two seasons as the orchestra’s music director, along with unusual repertoire by well-known composers: Stravinsky’s neo-classic ballets such as “The Song of the Nightingale” and “The Fairy’s Kiss” and Brahms’ smaller works for chorus and orchestra, “Nanie” and the “Schicksalslied.”

Each of the Spokane Symphony’s six music directors has shown a strong commitment to the standard repertoire and to established soloists. But each has taken his own direction in exploring new and unusual repertoire.

Each of the six has also taken the orchestra’s educational mission seriously at the same time, leading the orchestra in ear-gripping, charismatic performances fulfilling the roles of priest, explorer, teacher and entertainer.

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