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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s been nice to have a partner in crime’: How the Spokane Symphony’s new music director fellowship paired an enterprising young Mancunian with James Lowe

Alexander Robinson, right, of Manchester, England, is the first participant in the Spokane Symphony’s Music Director Fellowship Program under the tutelage of James Lowe, left, the symphony's music director.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

You can study conducting in university courses and take master classes just about anywhere there’s an orchestra. But no one teaches you how to be a music director. In fact, Spokane Symphony music director James Lowe explained, most of the time you just have to learn on the job.

This season, Lowe and the symphony are launching a series of Music Director Fellowships aimed at giving aspiring conductors a rare insight into the glamorous yet mysterious life of a music director.

“We want them to immerse themselves in this job and learn a little bit about how it actually works – how it is compared with the not insubstantial job of just conducting an orchestra,” Lowe said.

Visiting all the way from Manchester, “England’s second city,” Alexander Robinson, 26, will be Lowe’s first “minion” – that is, music directing fellow. The eagerly anticipated finale to a two-week intensive course spent shadowing Lowe through his day-to-day duties, Robinson will have the chance to conduct the symphony in a master class performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70.

“Learning to conduct is one thing, and there are a lot of opportunities to learn how to conduct,” Lowe said. “But being a music director is a very different job from just conducting – there’s a whole load of stuff that comes with it, that nobody really ever tells you how to do – you just kind of jump in and, hopefully, you swim.”

“This is the most unique course I’ve ever done,” Robinson said.

Robinson started his musical education with the violin, then, following in Lowe’s footsteps, switched to viola before stumbling, somewhat accidentally, into the world of conducting.

While still in sixth form college, advanced education typically undergone from ages 16-19, Robinson realized that although many of his classmates had musical training, there was no student orchestra in the school.

He took the initiative and built an ensemble. The range of instruments available was unconventional. So, instead of trying to fit the orchestra to existing pieces, Robinson decided to compose several short operas.

Today, Robinson is the associate conductor of the Nottingham Youth Orchestra, through which he met Lowe nearly four years ago.

Since then, Robinson and Lowe have formed the kind of playful rapport and obvious mutual respect that makes them a perfect pair for this sort of program, Lowe said.

“It’s been nice to have a partner in crime,” Lowe said.

Lowe hopes to continue and expand the fellowship. It’s a question of securing funds and, just as importantly, finding the right students.

“One of the things I’ve learned this week is just how much of a representative of the artistic side you have to be on the business side of things,” Robinson said. “When you’re studying music, if you’re a violinist you come out of college a fantastic violinist with no idea how to do your taxes.

“But this is fantastic because you get to see the inner workings – you learn to navigate the sea of the administrative side, the business side of things, how that relates to the artistic side. Because you have to be able to do both those things together. It’s multidimensional.”

Over the last week and a half, Robinson has followed Lowe to more than 40 events: working breakfasts and committee meetings, preconcert “LoweDown” talks and school visits, not to mention long evening rehearsals on top of the rest.

“I was tired after three days, but now? I’m exhausted,” Robinson said. “I think (Lowe’s) determination is quite inspirational – don’t ever tell him I said that.”

Spokane may seem an odd stop for a first-time visit to the U.S., but Robinson wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Everyone is so kind, incredibly loving,” he said, praising the Inland Northwestern welcome he’s received. “I’d move here in a heartbeat.”

Manchester is home to two prominent English football teams, but when asked which he supported, Robinson said, “The Zags.”