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

Review: James Lowe and the Spokane Symphony light up the Fox once again

Music director James Lowe sits for a portrait at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Sept. 2.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

At a point when it still appeared possible that the Spokane Symphony might be able to start its season in September 2020, music director James Lowe considered programming the Symphony No. 2 of Gustav Mahler, the “Resurrection” Symphony, for the inaugural concert. As we know, the orchestra and its audience had to wait an additional 12 months, until Saturday night, for that concert to take place.

When it did, the music it offered was both truer to what people have endured and more inspiring in thinking of what remains to endure than Mahler’s great symphony, which describes mankind’s rebirth into a life free from sorrow and death. Instead, Lowe and his orchestra presented a program that guides to find joy and fulfillment in life while acknowledging its tragic nature.

The three works of the weekend program – the “Fanfare on Amazing Grace (2011),” of American composer Adolphus Hailstork (1941-); the Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47 (1905), of the Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957); and Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 73 (1877) – project the qualities that have accounted for the continued existence of the Spokane Symphony through this period of unprecedented peril.

Those qualities are passion, imagination, resilience and love. Those were the qualities that brought every musician to the stage, every employee and volunteer of the symphony to their place in the house and every member of the audience to their seat. Hailstork’s “Fanfare” is a skillfully written icebreaker that provided members of the brass section plenty of opportunity to display their considerable chops.

After 90 seconds of joyous noise, the strings enter with a swelling statement of the great English hymn. The impact of programming the piece was greatly increased by Lowe’s decision to call on the magnificent resources of the Spokane Symphony Chorale to precede it with a brief but deeply affecting rendition of the hymn.

Leading the group was superb director Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah. As the auditorium lighting dimmed, members of the chorale spread out across the balcony. I am sure that chills were not confined to my spine alone, as their voices, pure and solemn, emerged from the darkness to remind of the ultimate source of the energy that had brought everyone together.

In her remarks at the pre-concert lecture, Bulgarian-born American violinist Bella Hristova showed herself to be a charming, modest and articulate young woman. As soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, however, she emerged as a fiery angel, expressing the intense yearning and ecstatic passion of this most passionate of violin concertos through showers of notes and unstinting torrents of golden tone from her magnificent Amati violin of 1655.

To be present at such a display of sheer musicality was an unforgettable gift. Hristova’s intense commitment and focus on Sibelius’ passionate concerto was fully matched by Lowe, whose careful dovetailing of tempo and instrumental balance with the soloist’s conception was ideal. By remaining true to the composer’s unique idiom, Lowe conveyed the full psychological and instrumental complexity of this great masterpiece as though hearing it for the first time.

The Brahms D major Symphony as the final work was welcomed as an opportunity to hear at last what the music director would do with a major staple of the orchestral repertoire that has a long, well-documented interpretive tradition, one that, furthermore, he himself selected. The result is a revelation, not only of the profound, interpretive depth of Lowe, but also of the true nature of a masterpiece that many had come to take for granted.

In his choice of repertoire and handling of it Saturday night, Lowe displayed the same virtues of character that have enabled him to give so much to our community despite, or perhaps because of, the many obstacles that have fallen in his path. Though his appearances have been relatively few, his impact on the life of Spokane, even upon those who care little for the music to which he has dedicated his life, has been profound and indelible.