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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Musical masterpiece: Spokane Symphony’s virtual series boasts innovation, collaboration and performance

By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

The hairs on the back of the neck start to prick up early on while watching the Spokane Symphony’s recent release of its first of five on-demand spring concert films titled “Overtones.” The first scene begins with an aerial pan shot taken from a drone hovering high, lonely and quiet above a gray and frozen Spokane.

Viewers slowly float down through the gathering darkness to the brightly lit marquis of the Fox Theater, where they can detect the strains of the orchestra warming up to play together for the first time in more than a year. Goosebumps.

Leave it to the presenters of 200-year-old music in an antique Spokane theater to forge one of the nation’s most modern, forward-thinking shows of this pandemic season. “Overtones” is not just an online experience of a filmed concert. It’s a musical masterpiece of can-do technological innovation, community collaboration and pent-up pandemic performance.

“Everything we’ve done is groundbreaking, really,” said James Lowe, the symphony’s music director and conductor. Lowe recently returned to Spokane from his home in Scotland to get to work on producing the “Overtones” concert series, which opened with its first episode, “Roots,” this month.

The second episode of Spokane Symphony’s “@Home and On-Demand Spring Concert Series,” titled “Classical Perfection,” aired last weekend; the third episode aired Friday; and the final two episodes roll out over the next two weekends. But there is no need to worry about missing any concerts that have already opened online.

The “@Home” concerts are not livestreamed events, but rather filmed TV shows, meaning that viewers can buy now and watch at any time over and over again. All five “Overtones” concerts are on-demand, binge-ready and binge-worthy for the next 12 months.

“I’m hugely proud of what we’ve done,” Lowe said. “The concerts stand up against anything that is being produced in the world right now, and my dream is that they find an audience well beyond what we envisioned.”

Part concert, part variety show, part documentary, each “Overtones” episode is, above all, a standalone full-feature-film experience. The episodes explore themes that connect classical music to other art forms, including folk music, culture, painting, architecture, storytelling and photography.

With closeups, pan shots and dramatic cross-stage sweeps from flying cameras on wires, the symphony musicians were lovingly recorded playing the greats – from Mozart and Haydn to Mahler and Chevalier de St. Georges. Spicing up the episodes are bits of content Lowe sprinkled in to put the classical pieces into context historically and rooted relevantly in the now.

Lowe interviewed local experts such as Wes Jessup, executive director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. For the “Classical Perfection” episode, Jessup discussed the way Mozart’s music influenced visual artworks and the classical architecture style of the U.S. Capitol building and the White House.

For Friday’s third episode, “Individualism,” Lowe interviewed Spokane Falls Community College philosophy professor Britni Weaver in between performances of solo-heavy music composed by Haydn and performed by the symphony.

To explore light in paintings, heavenly and otherwise, in music and nature, Lowe interviewed Washington State University physics instructor Anya Rasmussen and photographer and principal clarinet Chip Phillips. The “Heaven and Earth” episode features Lowe’s interview with Bill Matt Sr., Spokane Tribe environmental officer who discussed traditional beliefs in Native culture.

“I hope people who are music fans, but maybe who don’t really follow art much, suddenly find themselves wanting to explore painting or architecture,” Lowe said. “Or the other way around. If somebody watches a concert because they take a physics course at Spokane Falls, they might suddenly discover a lifelong passion for classical music.”

But center stage, always, are the musicians, their music and their beloved Fox Theater. Lowe uses the Gonzaga University men’s basketball team as a template for how far the symphony will go to bring joy and entertainment to audiences. “We are both local teams rooted in the community who play at a world-class level,” he said. “If the Zags can do it, why can’t we?”

Shooting for a Zags-level win takes a team of experts. Among the first people the symphony turned to in its efforts to stay vital and relevant during an unimaginable global shutdown was local photographer and filmmaker Don Hamilton and his wife, Lorna St. John, of Hamilton Studio.

“The Chinese word for crisis is made from two characters – one for danger and one for opportunity,” Hamilton said. “I could not have dreamed up a better opportunity than suddenly being given free rein over the most magnificent set in Christendom, the Fox Theater, and I’ve got James Lowe and his orchestra as my subjects.”

“It was like Dunkirk – the word went out that help was needed, and a bunch of little boats sped out to assist,” Hamilton said. “This could never have happened without every single member of the team, including James Lowe, who suddenly became a master editor, and (PR manager) Alison Highberger, who suddenly became a screenwriter, and (executive director) Jeff vom Saal, who suddenly became a film producer.”

“We invented this whole thing on the fly, and for nothing,” Hamilton said. It helped that Hamilton and St. John have a trove of high-dollar camera equipment and editing software at the ready, as well as veteran staffers to use them such as editor Hannah Sander and art director Matt Vielle.

Not to mention the couple owns a successful and fully equipped film studio, a 7,000-square-foot building in West Central that was the old St. Joseph’s Auditorium and Gym during the last century. Hamilton and St. John’s philanthropic efforts lean toward progressive causes, and, fortunately for the symphony, the arts sector.

As soon as Hamilton and Lowe met by Zoom from their respective continents to start planning the virtual concert series, Hamilton forced Lowe to stop and watch the first five minutes of his favorite movie, “The Last Waltz.”

Considered one of the greatest concert movies of all time, “The Last Waltz” was dreamed up more than 40 years ago as a tender swan song recording the final concert by Canadian rock group the Band. But as the guest-star list ballooned with music legends from Neil Diamond to Neil Young, the Band leader Robbie Robertson called on then-35-year-old Martin Scorsese to ask if he could bring a camera to help record the event.

Scorsese took the idea and ran with it, booking no fewer than seven separate top-notch camera crews to capture the magic of a live rock ‘n’ roll concert. The rest is history, complete with the Library of Congress selecting the film for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The teams of camera operators, editors and producers at Hamilton Studio and the Spokane Symphony appear to have set their sights just as high. “The Spokane Symphony’s ‘On Demand Spring Concert Series’ is ‘The Last Waltz!’ ” Hamilton said, channeling his best mad scientist-turned-filmmaker voice.

“The first five minutes of ‘The Last Waltz’ tells you everything you need to know about my gestalt and about the visual vocabulary of the cameras that I have set up onstage at the Fox,” Hamilton said.

“It just so happens that Martin Scorsese and I did it the same way, exactly, by using the long lenses, pulling focus from an artist here to an artist there, cutting to different camera angles to build emotion at the right times.

“In our case, we are running a minimum of 10 cameras at the Fox, while Scorsese only had seven,” Hamilton chuckled. Hamilton had me watch the first five minutes of “The Last Waltz,” as well. As loud as the volume would go. As it should be.

The biggest difference to me between “The Last Waltz” and the Spokane Symphony’s “Overtones”? Scorsese’s film holds a melancholy note of farewell, but the symphony’s movies are a joyful “welcome back.”