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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Symphony music director James Lowe: My long way back to Spokane

UPDATED: Thu., March 4, 2021

By James Lowe For The Spokesman-Review

Conductors’ lives are punctuated by travel. Comings and goings are part of our natural rhythm. Almost a year ago, I left Spokane expecting to be back the following month for the last three concerts of the Spokane Symphony’s 2019/20 season, a tantalizing menu of Tchaikovsky, Bruckner and Mahler. Well, tantalizing for a megalomaniac conductor at any rate.

I landed in London, spent a weekend with my fiancée Charlotte and friends and then continued on for more conducting work in Finland. It was at the end of that week the ban on U.S. entry for people who had been in the European Schengen zone took effect. I flew back to Scotland, and, until this week, I’ve been there for the past year.

I haven’t been in one place for so long since I left home for university. I’m happy to report that all this time at home didn’t go too badly. Charlotte and I got married between lockdowns in August, so I guess you can say we survived the Mars Capsule Test. I’m not sure I would want to face that challenge with Elon Musk.

As I write, I’m on day two of a 14-day hard quarantine in Seattle – I am not allowed to leave my small Airbnb two-room apartment. It’s the last of a number of hurdles I’ve had to clear in order to get back to my orchestra. The only exception to the travel ban is to get a National Interest Exemption that allows entry under very limited conditions.

Thanks to the help of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Sen. Maria Cantwell, I was granted the NIE, got my pre-flight COVID-19 test and then flew on a mostly empty flight from London to Seattle. A flight attendant told me there was more smoked Scottish salmon on the plane than people!

How airlines are surviving this time is beyond me, although their predicament is similar to the one we find ourselves in in the arts. If there’s an image that captures the knack of running an orchestra in any year, let alone a pandemic one, I’d say it’s rather like a clairvoyant juggling knives while walking a tightrope.

We have to predict with some accuracy how well individual concerts will do and how, over a series, we can balance more commercial programs with more heavyweight events that tend to draw a more specialized crowd – a practice sometimes called the “Mahler Tax” by musicians.

We have to have a good idea of how much we will earn from renting out Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox and working as promoter for our guest artist series Fox Presents. We have to accurately predict how much our generous benefactors, kind donors and corporations will help us with donated income all the while keeping track of the complicated rules and regulations that control the way we work.

We were pretty good at making these predictions in the past, but the pandemic has churned up an impossible array of unknown variables: What proportion of the Fox Theater will we be able to sell next season? Will we be back to 100% or, as is more likely, have a capped capacity? What will that cap be, and when might that change?

Will people feel comfortable coming back into a concert hall in the near future, or is this something that will take a while to get used to? Like the airlines, our revenue is tied to how many people we serve, so how long will it take before we’re able to get our earned income back to pre-COVID-19 levels?

The way orchestras all over the world have run has changed little in the last decades, adhering to the idea that we must plan at least a year or two in advance, perform on set days of the week and expect patrons to pay for a subscription that commits them to events many months away. The pandemic offers us a chance to reassess fundamentally held beliefs to the benefit of everyone.

Right now, the 75-year-old Spokane Symphony finds itself in a holding pattern, unable to perform live, that seems to extend beyond any visible horizon. To bridge the uncertainty, over the next few weeks, we will start recording a series of five digital concerts with various combinations of players. The first concert will debut on April 2 online (details will be at spokanesymphony.org).

It’s impossible to translate the experience of live music onto a screen, so rather than just throw a bunch of musicians on stage and film them, we will enrich the music performances with short segments on linked topics. Each of the five concerts will follow a theme, like “individualism” or “heaven and earth.”

We’ll explore how the same ideas have expressed themselves in art, literature, religion or science. I’ll enjoy filming chats for you on those topics with a variety of smart and engaging people from across the Inland Northwest. These will be concerts with “music and more,” thanks to the pandemic. There’s a great deal to do to prepare these concerts, and it’s nice to be busy with artistic work again.

But this year has taught me something very precious. There’s a danger in being busy all the time. It stops you from contemplation, from engaging meaningfully with the world outside your own head. The pandemic year in Scotland has connected me deeply to the nature there, inspired by my new parents-in-law Laura and Simon Blackwood, both artists who get inspiration from the natural world around them.

The way they see and celebrate the incremental passage of time has granted me a new perspective: noticing the first appearance of daffodils in March, the azaleas exploding into riotous bloom in May, tasting the first strawberry of summer, catching poplar leaves to make wishes in the fall, burning the yule log on the winter solstice and making marmalade with the new crop of oranges from Seville in January.

These have all been markers of the passing year, and I’m far richer for having had the time to notice them. Recently, the first snowdrops started to poke through the cold earth of the Scottish Borders. Impossibly delicate, these plucky, little, honey-scented flowers huddle in platoons braving all weathers.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a huge fall of snow, and temperatures plummeted to well below freezing for days on end. Roads near us became impassable (we had to help the local post office dig out a slightly too-intrepid driver), and the force of the ice cracked the potholes in our road ever wider.

But as the ice thawed, the snow withdrew to reveal the snowdrops still there. Delicately defiant, their heads bowed but unyielding. A tiny symbol of hope and perseverance and a sure sign that this long winter is almost over. At least this year, I’ll get to enjoy the first daffodils of spring in Spokane.

James Lowe is music director of the Spokane Symphony.

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