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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Labor Day crowd takes in Spokane symphony, last rays of summer at Comstock Park concert

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 2, 2019

Morihiko Nakahara conducts the Spokane Symphony Orchestra in front of a crowd of thousands at Comstock Park on Monday Sept. 2, in Spokane, Wash. The annual Labor Day concert is a free community event. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Morihiko Nakahara conducts the Spokane Symphony Orchestra in front of a crowd of thousands at Comstock Park on Monday Sept. 2, in Spokane, Wash. The annual Labor Day concert is a free community event. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Embry Cairns confidently took the trombone in her 7-year-old hands at Comstock Park on Monday evening, gleefully blowing notes into the late summer air.

“It felt funny on the lips,” Embry said, giggling. “It’s like the air just comes back, and you’re like …” she paused, mimicking the sound of a buzzing bee.

She was one of dozens of children who huddled around a selection of instruments to test out before the Spokane Symphony’s annual free outdoor concert Monday. Thousands of residents once again lugged in blankets, chairs and an assortment of picnic fare to signal the unofficial close of summer in Spokane.

Caleb Evert, 13, tried his hand at the saxophone.

“I play the piano and trumpet,” said Caleb, who was taking in the concert with his family. “The clarinet, and the saxophone, with the reeds, they’re quite different from the trumpet.”

At 6 p.m., as the sun started to dip, the crowd found its seats and the professionals began to play. Under the direction of Resident Conductor Morihiko Nakahara, the 70-piece orchestra wove its way Monday evening through patriotic staples and recognizable tunes from stage and film, including John Williams’ unmistakable theme to “Star Wars” and Alan Silvestri’s orchestral arrangement of the suite from the ’80s sci-fi franchise “Back to the Future.”

The 2019 performance was a precursor to the arrival of new music director James Lowe, whose inaugural appearance is slated for another free concert scheduled inside the new U.S. Pavilion in Riverfront Park on Saturday afternoon.

“What fantastic weather,” Nakahara said after taking the stage to a light smattering of applause from the estimated 5,000 people who gathered at the South Hill park.

“And no smoke!” he added, to an even bigger cheer from those who recall the 2017 edition of the outdoor concert where performers donned face masks to avoid the choking ash of nearby wildfires.

The symphony’s outdoor performance in the South Hill park has been the unofficial close of summer in Spokane since 1986. That year, a group of five community organizers raised the money necessary to house the orchestra in a canvas band shell on the park’s baseball diamond, in an effort to expose those who might find the usual stuffy setting of the symphony unappealing.

Julie Rector, a South Hill resident, attended that first concert more than three decades ago, when she estimated the crowd was several hundred strong. That crowd paled in comparison to the throng who now filled much of the southern portion of Comstock Park on Monday night.

“It was nothing like this,” Rector said.

She sat with friends Karen Olson, Eileen Martin, Gail Furman and Eileen Lyons, sharing a potluck of spring rolls and biscotti cookies. And, like many others around the park, a few bottles of wine.

“We don’t know if it’s allowed, but we do it anyway,” Olson joked.

The Labor Day concert is an excuse not only to get out and hear live music on the last Monday of summer vacation, but it’s also a social event, said couple Michael and Colleen Yellin, who were sharing some pre-performance snacks with friend Michael Joy beneath a tent under a copse of maple and pine trees.

“We’ve been coming here at least 20 years,” said Michael Yellin, before pushing a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies on an apparently famished-looking reporter.

“It’s wonderful. And it’s not only family, but friends,” Colleen Yellin said. “You get to reconnect with some of the people that you don’t see the rest of the year. And, then of course, the wonderful music.”

“You get to eat until you explode!” Joy interjected, grabbing a piece of fried chicken.

Events like the symphony concert are what make Spokane unique, they said, after living all over the country while on duty with the U.S. Air Force.

“I’ve lived from one end of the world to another,” Michael Yelling said, motioning to his wife. “When she said I want to move back here to retire, I said, ‘let’s go.’ ”

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