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Wednesday, October 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Locally Writ: Jim Kershner’s ‘The Sound of Spokane’ spotlights the Spokane Symphony

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 20, 2020

From the time author and columnist Jim Kershner left high school, more than anything, he wanted to write in whatever style and on whatever subject he could.

“It’s a tough choice to make,” Kershner said, explaining the difficulty writers face in making a living by their work. But he was determined.

He decided that if he was really going to make an honest go of becoming a professional writer, he would have to be willing to write anything. And journalism, he knew, would be an excellent place to start.

So, while studying toward a degree in history at Lewis & Clark College, Kershner joined the student newspaper. From there, he would go on to work for the Cody Enterprise in Cody, Wyoming, the Valley Daily News in Kent, Washington, and finally The Spokesman-Review, where, over the course of several decades, he would serve as a humor-opinion columnist, theater critic, arts editor, entertainment writer, restaurant reviewer and history writer.

Today, Kershner is a historian for historylink.com, a free online encyclopedia dedicated to the history of Washington state.

Throughout his different writing jobs, Kershner reveled in the more creative aspects of the work.

“In journalism, even though a lot of it is straight nonfiction, there are ways you can be creative,” he said, referring to his opinion columns later published in an anthology titled “The Human Comedy, Plus Other Species at No Extra Charge.”

After Kershner’s eponymously named biography of Carl Maxey was released in 2008 to critical acclaim – the book was a finalist for the 2009 Washington Book Award – he accepted several other extended historical projects. His work continued to win awards. The subjects weren’t always his first choice, but they paid well – and he was happy to be putting words on paper.

But after a certain point, comfortably supported by his freelance work, he decided it was time for a change.

“I thought, ‘You know what I really want to do? I want a project where I don’t care whether I get paid for it,’ ” he said.

His most recent book, “The Sound of Spokane: A History of the Spokane Symphony,” was exactly that, “a labor of love.”

Kershner said he knew the project would hinge on two elements: tracking down historical photographs and illustrations while finding a way to tell the story in a way that wouldn’t read like a glorified season program. Neither of these tasks would prove difficult.

The images were much more easily accessible than he had thought, cataloged as they had been in The Spokesman-Review’s extensive archives.

Moreover, he quickly realized that to say the symphony’s origin story was more dramatic than a simple list of concerts was quite the understatement.

When conductor and “musical taskmaster” Harold Paul Whelan came to Spokane in 1945, many before him had tried and failed to form a viable symphony orchestra. Spokane clearly wanted a symphony, Kershner explains, but it would take Whelan’s special blend of musical dedication and businesses acumen to finally put the necessary pieces in motion.

Seventy-five years later, despite enough turmoil, emotion and drama to fuel a symphony written by Beethoven, the Spokane Symphony has continued to solidify its reputation as what some call “the smallest major orchestra in the United States.”

“I’ve always loved the symphony,” Kershner said. “(It’s) one of the real cultural treasures of Spokane.”

To aspiring writers and historians, Kershner offered the following advice.

“Read authors that you know have got it figured out, and pay attention to how they did it. And, as much as you can, avoid reading things that are badly written,” he said, explaining how reading bad writing can be like poison to a writer’s mind.

“Be willing to take on any project, and keep your eyes out for opportunities because there’re all kinds of stories out there that haven’t been written,” he said. “Get as much experience as you can in any way you can.”

“The Sound of Spokane” is available at Auntie’s Bookstore. More: spokanesymphony.org.

Northwest Passages Book Club

To mark the symphony’s 75th year, Kershner will join symphony principal trumpet Larry Jess to discuss the symphony’s history in a virtual forum at 4 p.m. Wednesday. No ticket is required. More: spokesman.com/northwest-passages.

The symphony announced its 75th anniversary plans Wednesday that include the MAC exhibit, Kershner’s book and Northwest Passages virtual event Wednesday and Spokane artist Chris Bovey’s limited-edition poster commemorating the milestone. The symphony’s 75th season has been moved to next year and will begin in September 2021 at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

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