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Difference Makers: Jeff vom Saal brings new focus to the Fox and the Spokane Symphony

Difference Maker Jeff vom Saal is the executive director of the Spokane Symphony and the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Difference Maker Jeff vom Saal is the executive director of the Spokane Symphony and the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

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To view all of the 2019 difference makers, click here.

Jeff vom Saal had never visited Spokane before applying to be the executive director of the Spokane Symphony and the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, but he was familiar with the symphony’s reputation.

“Spokane is known as this little engine that does,” vom Saal said. “It’s got a bigger orchestra than other communities its size for peer-to-peer comparison. It’s turned out a lot of really good conductors and musicians.”

Vom Saal graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music with a degree in trumpet performance and began directing orchestras at the age of 24. He cut his teeth at the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra in North Dakota before moving on to the Quad City Symphony in Davenport, Iowa, and the Marin Symphony in Northern California.

The symphony’s reputation, plus the added challenge of running the Fox, pushed vom Saal to apply for the position.

He was hired as the executive director in 2016, replacing Brenda Nienhouse, who left the symphony after 10 years.

Operating a theater as well as an orchestra was new to vom Saal. Although he admits it was daunting at first, he said he never felt alone and was supported by the orchestra and board.

His transition to executive director was not seamless, however. When he took over the job, there were talks of potential bankruptcy and selling the Fox to preserve the orchestra.

“And I said, ‘This is one crappy narrative. This is not what we really want to be talking about,’ ” he said. “When I first came to the first board meeting, I remember giving this little talk, giving a little speech and talking about the challenges before us are not insignificant nor are they insurmountable.”

Looking back, vom Saal said the organization is different than it was back then, thanks to the hard work of the board and musicians, a lot of risk management and simply getting their feet under them via organizational, financial and corporate structures.

“Orchestras epitomize what is possible when people come together around a common cause with uncommon fervor,” vom Saal said.

With its feet under it, and vom Saal at the helm, the symphony has thrived over the last year, even through the transition between music directors Eckart Preu and James Lowe.

Hiring Lowe and programming the 2019-20 season after Preu announced his departure could have been a stumbling block.

But vom Saal shrugs it off, saying that while that was an additional duty he doesn’t often have to handle, it is what’s expected of an executive director when a music director search arises.

“It’s really cool to see the quality of people,” he said. “This is a general statement: Anytime we have an opening for somebody, whether it’s a really high-level position, music director or anybody else for that matter, it is so affirming to know what kind of level people we’re able to bring in to us and to be interested in this organization.”

Vom Saal also feels like the music director search brought the organization as a whole – the orchestra and the board – closer together.

In programming the season, vom Saal strived to provide a variety of experiences.

“I do very much like thinking about not only the music itself but what it does, the story it tells both within a concert itself and the woven structure between concerts,” he said. “This year is a good demonstration that every concert is quite different. From one to the next, it’s a definite departure and curve between every concert.”

Vom Saal points to “Masterworks 4: 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing,” which was in November and featured astronaut Anne McClain and visual effects from José Francisco Salgado, and “Masterworks 5: Beethoven’s 250th Birthday,” which will be in January and feature violinist Augustin Hadelich, as good examples of the variety the symphony is presenting this season.

Between those two concerts, the symphony also performed during “Movies and Music 1: Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in Concert Live to Film,” and “The Nutcracker.”

The Fox, too, has hosted a variety of events this season, including concerts from Kip Moore and Sleater-Kinney, the “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Werq the World” tour and a screening of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” followed by a Q-and-A with actor Chevy Chase.

“The simplest (reason) is to try to get as many people to come here as we can, to build the most vibrant existence possible for both the orchestra and the organization and the community,” vom Saal said. “A level deeper is to showcase all the different types of music that orchestras are involved with.”

In another attempt to bring new audiences into the Fox this year, vom Saal and the symphony launched the Free Access to Student Tickets program, which gives children in kindergarten through 12th grade free tickets to Masterworks concerts, and “Coffee and Classics” events.

According to vom Saal, he’s had the idea for FAST for years and sees the organization represented as a vector diagram with both direction and magnitude.

“We want to do good things well,” he said. “The more accessibility and impact we have into this community, the more we are doing our job as an organization. That’s point one. Point two is very simple. We do have seats available often.”

Over the course of the season, with the FAST program now in use, vom Saal said the organization has seen parents and families attending concerts more often and even getting season tickets.

Vom Saal takes those comments as proof the organization is heading in the right direction, though he doesn’t claim to have a “magic playbook” on how to succeed.

“We can look at what our peers are doing,” he said. “That can help. Or even what people are doing in other industries. How would Disney do this? How would somebody you really hold in high esteem think this through? Take that and make it very Spokane and make it us. Check it and stay close to it and then you’ll know right away if something’s working.”

Another thing the organization has found works is to host events in the community, including “Lowe Down” talks featuring conductor James Lowe at libraries and First Avenue Coffee.

These talks offer an opportunity to meet people where they are.

“Often it is small groups that are the most amenable to digging in around a topic that you can actually have a conversation with them,” he said. “You’re not just talking at them, you’re really talking with them or interacting with them.”

Vom Saal said opportunities to connect with the community have been a highlight of his time with the symphony. He also loves being backstage right before a concert begins and feeling the energy of the musicians and crew.

“There’s this quote by Edward Everett Hale: ‘I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do,’ ” vom Saal said. “It’s basically, ‘We are this interdependent structure. We all have agency. We all matter. I can’t lift that bus up, but I bet you if a bunch of us got together and the thing was stuck in the snow, we could push it a little bit.’ I like that. I like that fact that this is a very human existence and organization. It’s powered by humans and it’s for humans.”

Looking ahead to 2020, and the symphony’s 75th anniversary, vom Saal hopes the organization remains vibrant and part of the community. His goal is for the symphony and Fox to become “part of everybody’s existence” through programming, educational programs or other events.

“We want to be the third place. Starbucks talks about this. There’s home and there’s work and there’s that other place you want to go. We want to be that other place that everybody thinks about that satisfies something that we all internally crave, which is connection to ourselves, with others, whether they’re our family or our friends or neighbors or people we don’t know yet, but we can create this uniformity of existence through the experiences we have together.”

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