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Spokane Symphony’s performance of Ukranian national anthem prompts standing ovations

UPDATED: Sun., March 6, 2022

The commemoration of the Spokane Symphony’s 75th anniversary, already delayed by COVID-19, had to wait a few extra moments on Sunday afternoon.

Those moments were filled by the orchestra, under the direction of James Lowe, performing the Ukrainian national anthem. The Spokane Symphony joined dozens of other performers across the United States and the world, including the New York Philharmonic, playing the song in solidarity with the country under fire from a Russian invasion.

“Music unites humanity,” Lowe said in an interview before the performance at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Sunday. “We have players from all over the world. Classical musicians are an international group.”

As Lowe announced the surprise delay in the program, which was to begin with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s overture from Iphigenie in Aulis, the crowd of several hundred murmured and applauded. Gluck’s work was the first performed by the symphony in December 1945, but Lowe said the decision was made earlier in the week to alter the program to accommodate for world events.

“I didn’t want it to be a kind of unilateral decision,” said Lowe, who has served as symphony director since June 2019. “We spoke to the orchestra, and the board, and the concert sponsors, and it was a unanimous agreement for the anthem.”

The piece, which predates Ukrainian statehood, is based on a poem written by Pavlo Chubynsky in 1862. Though the words weren’t sung Sunday, the English translation of the anthem begins with the phrase, “Ukraine has not yet died, nor her glory, nor her freedom.”

Jeff vom Saal, the symphony’s executive director, said music can be a unifying force in the midst of what can seem like a divided world.

“Orchestras epitomize that which is possible,” he said. “A group of people can come together around a common goal, with uncommon fervor.”

Lowe said the players received the sheet music for the rehearsal the morning before the anthem’s first performance, which kicked off Saturday evening’s show. With flourishes of his baton, Lowe led the orchestra through two minutes of the bombastic anthem, as the crowd of Spokanites spontaneously rose to their feet.

Before he started, Lowe paraphrased the words of Leonard Bernstein. The legendary conductor said after a performance of Gustav Mahler’s second symphony in 1963 dedicated to the memory of slain President John F. Kennedy that his reply to violence was “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

“This concert is our reply,” Lowe said.

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