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Spokane Symphony names James Lowe as next music director

James Lowe, the new music director for the Spokane Symphony, makes his debut at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Tuesday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
James Lowe, the new music director for the Spokane Symphony, makes his debut at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Tuesday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

A two-year process came to a close Tuesday when the Spokane Symphony announced James Lowe as its new music director.

Lowe, who beat out 188 applicants to succeed Eckart Preu, was formally introduced during a news conference at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

“We needed to find a music director who could fill two major roles,” Russ Lee, president of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra Board of Trustees and chair of the music director search committee, said before the announcement.

The first was to build on the foundation Preu had created during his 15-year tenure with the symphony and take the orchestra to the “next level of artistic excellence.”

The second was to continue to build the symphony’s connection with the community.

“We believe our future success will require us to both maintain our traditions and also be inventive and opportunistic,” Lee said. “Our new music director along with our executive director will be the team to lead us into that future.”

With that, Jeff vom Saal, the symphony’s executive director, announced Lowe as the new music director.

Before answering questions, Lowe expressed gratitude for the opportunity, saying he “fell absolutely in love with the orchestra and the management and the town” when he auditioned in February.

“It is incredibly rare to find an organization with all the stars aligned in the way they are here with the Spokane Symphony …” he said, highlighting the “passionate and technically fantastic orchestra,” the Fox itself, the “energetic and enthusiastic” management team and the supportive patrons and Spokane Symphony Associates. “What’s not to love? I feel like a kid in a sweet shop. I’m so excited to roll up my sleeves and get working.”

Lowe, 43, grew up in Nottingham, England, and is based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the chief conductor of the Vaasa City Orchestra in Finland and principal conductor of the Edinburgh Contemporary Music Ensemble.

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.

Lowe’s audition featured works by Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, as well as a new piece, “Rise,” by Zhou Tian, which was commissioned in part by the Spokane Symphony.

In a review of the concert for The Spokesman-Review, Larry Lapidus wrote “Lowe’s achievement in this interpretation (of the Brahms E minor Symphony) is hard to overestimate, for, while other conductors may make more of the symphony’s propulsive energy, or look more deeply into its tragic shadows, none in my experience maintains the astounding equilibrium among all its aspects that we heard on Saturday night.”

After the news conference, concertmaster Mateusz Wolski, who was also a member of the search committee, said, for the musicians, it came down to chemistry.

It’s one thing to be good at your job and communicating, Wolski said, but can a conductor inspire musicians to play great music?

“Somehow James managed to, I felt, get the best out of us, truly feel like we are sounding different than we sounded before,” he said. “Some big orchestras joke ‘It doesn’t really matter who stands up in front of you, we’re always going to sound as XYZ.’ So to have somebody come in and being able to get something different, I think James just managed to do that, and we were all in awe. We’ve done some stuff that we’ve never done before.”

Lowe said he felt that chemistry, too.

“We were immediately in dialogue, in musical dialogue,” he said. “It wasn’t about me being a dictator and it wasn’t about them playing the way they play, it was this wonderful feeling that we were talking with each other through the music. That is the most important thing for me as a conductor is this feeling of collaboration and conversation you can have with music without words.”

During the news conference, Lowe expressed interest in working on the symphony’s educational outreach and about getting more diverse patrons, primarily young people, to symphony concerts.

“The most important thing is that people start a belief, which is unquestionably for me, which is that classical music belongs to everybody and it talks to everybody if you care to listen,” he said.

He is curious about the pathway between a person’s first experience with the symphony and them becoming a subscriber, and he’s looking forward to working with the symphony on new projects.

Lowe said he’s worked with symphonies that weren’t open to new ideas, but the Spokane Symphony is the exact opposite.

“ ‘Child in the sweet shop’ is the overworn simile I keep using, but it really is that feeling of there’s a huge amount here that’s possible … ” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure on me, because I think a lot of what the orchestra does already is so good. I have a really good idea, and I go on the website and say ‘Oh, they did that already six years ago with Eckart.’ It’s going to keep me on my toes.”

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