James Lowe did what many people do when entering the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox for the first time: he turned around slowly, mouth slightly agape, while trying to take in the overwhelming beauty of the theater.
But unlike many people who enter the venue, Lowe also clapped twice.
“It’s an acoustic thing,” he said later. “It’s nice to know how resonant it is.”
As a music director finalist, Lowe is very invested in how the theater reacts to the sound of the orchestra.
There has to be a sweet spot, he said, between too resonant and too dry.
He’d get a better feel for the acoustics of the Fox during his first rehearsal with the Spokane Symphony, but he was already impressed that the symphony got to both rehearse and perform in the Fox.
In the U.K. (Lowe grew up in Nottingham, England), symphonies often rehearse in one venue and perform in another.
Performing and rehearsing in one space, Lowe said, lets musicians know they can trust what they’re hearing.
“If you’re actually in the same hall every working day, I think it helps the level of the orchestra as well,” he said. “If you’re rehearsing in different venues, it’s almost a bit like driving with a handbrake on. It is a luxury of rehearsing and performing in the same venue.”
After a week of rehearsals, Lowe will have a pretty solid idea of how the hall reacts to the symphony as he heads into “Classics 6: Passion’s Pursuit,” which also features guest pianist Haochen Zhang, on Saturday and Sunday.
Lowe is the second of five finalists to try out for the role of music director. Finalist Morihiko Nakahara, who is also resident conductor of the symphony, auditioned in October.
Lowe is the chief conductor of the Vaasa City Orchestra in Finland, and he has performed with ensembles around the world including the Osaka and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestras, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, the Scottish Ballet, the orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
After a few days in Seattle, watching as the weather got worse and worse, Lowe arrived in Spokane on Sunday night.
The next day, Lowe, an avid reader, visited Giant Nerd Books and Maryhill Winery before hitting the ground running on a week of meetings and rehearsals with the symphony and chorale.
“It’s a real working week,” he said backstage at the Fox. “Obviously, it’s important we both check each other out, the orchestra and I and the board management, but I have to say it’s a hugely impressive organization. The energy is really fantastic and the work they’re doing, I think, is exactly the kind of stuff a symphony should be doing in its community.”
When Eckart Preu announced he was leaving the symphony at the end of the 2018-19 season, a friend of Lowe’s suggested he look into the position.
After researching the symphony, and the Fox, he was excited by the work the symphony was doing to connect with the community.
“I always say an orchestra is not just a machine for generating concerts,” he said. “It should have some kind of function in its community. It should belong to the people in the community.”
The weekend’s program features Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which Lowe suggested after feeling the program was a little short.
“(It’s) a very silly piece of music,” Lowe said. “It’s the one that Tom and Jerry famously performed… It’s certainly Liszt’s most famous piece and certainly one of the most famous pieces of classical music out there.”
Lowe will also conduct the West Coast premiere of Zhou Tian’s “Rise,” which was commissioned in honor of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I by the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, the Spokane Symphony and the Erie Philharmonic.
There’s another Liszt piece, his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major, which Lowe has never conducted before, then the program closes with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, which Lowe called one of his desert island pieces of music.
In a way, Lowe sees programming a concert, and an entire season, like planning a balanced meal.
“You can’t live off roast beef and Yorkshire pudding your whole life,” he said.
He likes the symphony’s mix of Classics performances and lighter fare, like movie-inspired concerts.
“Hopefully you get to a stage where everybody feels like every concert has got something for them, not just ‘I’m only going to the movie night’ or ‘I’m only going to go to the Classic night’,” he said. “It’s the orchestra. They’re putting something on. It’s going to be good. Regardless of what they’re doing, it’s going to be good.”
Which goes back to Lowe’s goal of having a symphony and its community go hand-in-hand. He likens it to cities with sports teams that everyone roots for, like Boston and the Red Sox.
“I think ultimately that’s what I would I love to feel,” he said. “Any orchestra in its community is the same feeling. It’s like ‘Hey, we’ve got a symphony here and we’re really proud of it. We belong to them and they belong to us.’ ”
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