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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Darkness at the Fox: A spiritual silence

UPDATED: Sun., May 3, 2020

The Spokane Symphony performs for area fourth-graders in 2017 at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. For The Spokesman-Review classical music reviewer Larry Lapidus, classical concerts in Spokane have an energy that flows between the performers and the audience. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Symphony performs for area fourth-graders in 2017 at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. For The Spokesman-Review classical music reviewer Larry Lapidus, classical concerts in Spokane have an energy that flows between the performers and the audience. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

In an understatement fit to set beside others such as “There is a lot of sand in the Sahara” and “Our galaxy is home to many stars,” I want to say that I have a lot of classical records. I use “records” as a capacious umbrella capable of covering many terms more exact such as LPs,cassettes,reel-to-reel tapes,DVDs,78s,CDs,VHS and Betamax tapes, as well as files on various hard drives that stretch on every side like a limitless sea to the horizon. Thus, it would not be accurate for me to claim that the silencing of the Spokane Symphony and its allied arts organizations by the novel coronavirus has left me bereft of music.

Why, then, do I feel like a bike tire that has been punctured by a nasty kid? Surely, the reason lies in the difference between listening to a recording and attending a live performance. The current lockdown has made us all keenly aware of how much we depend on the energy we draw from those around us and that electronic media are a poor substitute.

But there is something more, something specific to the classical music scene in Spokane that sets it apart from any other community in which I have lived. These communities field some pretty good orchestras, too: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York City, and I have been fortunate to be able to attend many concerts in all of them. Wonderful as they may have been, they have lacked the sense of intense interaction between the performers and the audience that so strongly characterizes the music scene in Spokane.

Awareness of this bi-directional energy snuck up on me gradually until striking with full force at a concert by the Spokane Symphony in November 2012. The concert was not given at the orchestra’s usual venue, nor was it led by their then music director, Eckart Preu. The musicians were on strike as a means of protesting a severe cut in pay recommended by the orchestra board, which was desperately seeking a solution to a financial crisis brought on by a recession.

I sat on the stage behind the orchestra, which allowed me to watch not only their interaction, but also the immediate responses of the audience. There was no scanning of cellphones or rummaging through handbags. As far as I could see, every eye in the house was fixed on the orchestra as it delivered performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra by Mozart.

The Beethoven was invigorating and thoroughly professional, but what sticks in my mind was watching the faces of violinist Mateusz Wolski and violist Nick Carper as their instrumental voices, now playfully, now forcefully, toyed with each other, soared with each other and ultimately joined with each other in a dizzying display of the sheer joy given us by Mozart to make beauty out of thin air. These two seasoned professionals literally giggled with delight at the perfection of their dueting. The sober frowns of the strike were, if not forgotten, vanquished by their playing and the roar of support and gratitude and … love (there is no other word for it) … that arose from the crowd.

An awareness of this same sense of profound union and support has remained with me ever since at every concert I have attended by the orchestra, but never more than in October 2018 when Morihiko Nakahara, longtime resident conductor of the Spokane Symphony, conducted the orchestra as a candidate to replace departing music director Preu.

Though that honor ultimately was awarded to James Lowe, the orchestra under Nakahara plainly exhibited a level of brilliance, flexibility and virtuosity that many of their most ardent supporters would not have believed possible. It was a breakthrough moment made possible not only by Nakahara, but also by the 14 years of inspirational leadership and championing by Preu, by the dedicated perfectionism of individual players and not least by the ever-deepening support of the audience.

To say this special bonding between performers and Spokane’s audience for classical music is strictly confined to concerts by the Spokane Symphony would be unfair and untrue. What else would have led Gunther Schuller, a died-in-the-wool product of the East Coast musical establishment if ever there was one, to take on the direction of the Northwest Bach Festival in 1993 and to remain in that post to within two years of his death in 2015?

And then was it shrewd career management that persuaded Zuill Bailey, one of the world’s greatest musicians and already the director of two music festivals, to take on that responsibility and, in so doing, elevate the festival to a level of international prominence? Surely, it must have been that Bailey, like Schuller, Preu and Lowe … and let us not forget world-renowned opera star Thomas Hampson, who flew his accompanist to Spokane from Vienna to help him baptize the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox … sensed that uncommon aura that surrounds the art-music community in Spokane and that beckoned to them as a source of support, comradeship and joy.

It is that very energy that is missed by all of us who contributed to it now that the Fox is dark and the convivial tasting room of Barrister Winery, favored venue of the BachFest, is quiet. Those who miss that energy, however, can still experience it by reigniting it within themselves and, with no one to hear their applause and no art deco palace to echo their “bravos,” by demonstrating their love for our musicians and gratitude for the richness and excitement of our community by buying season tickets and subscriptions to their upcoming concerts and contributing to the Musicians’ Relief Fund established to allow them to keep making music – and making it in Spokane.

Larry Lapidus reviews classical music concerts for The Spokesman-Review.

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