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

Symphony review: A series of improbabilities led to world’s fair and to this weekend’s concert that captured the spirit of Expo `74

James Lowe conducts the Spokane Symphony.  (Courtesy)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Spokane’s history is a tissue of improbabilities. How likely was it that one of America’s great architects would do his best work here, including the Davenport Hotel? How likely was it that, when that great building was about to fall to the wrecking ball, a couple, who started making money by renovating old grocery stores, would restore it to the peak of its former glory and go on to use it as the foundation of a group of world-class hotels, attracting visitors from every corner of the planet? How probable is it that, while newspapers in major cities throughout the country are vanishing, we still find in our front yards a newspaper with the same masthead – and the same publisher’s name – as has appeared there for over a century, enabling us to find out what went on at last Saturday’s symphony concert?

Surely the greatest improbability in our history, however, is that, about 55 years ago, a group of civic leaders decided that this would be a suitable place for a world’s fair, and that an ideal location for it would be the grotesque, sooty tangle of bridges, walls and rail lines that had defaced the city since well before the turn of the last century. Vastly more improbable was the fact that, five years later, the president of the United States would arrive in Spokane, travel in a motorcade to the site of the former rail yard and declare the 1974 world’s fair open.

Three of America’s – and the world’s – greatest orchestras appeared at that fair: the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But there was a fourth – the Spokane Symphony – that surely would not have been included had the fair been held anywhere else. Still, it was entirely fitting that had proved its ability to do the impossible in so many ways would add this to their list. As Jim Kerschner documents in his excellent “The Sound of Spokane – 75 Years of the Spokane Symphony (2020),” the audacious, aspirational DNA that energized the Fair also animated the orchestra, lifting it to a higher level of professional excellence and propelling it into the future supported by a permanent music director and performance venue, and worthy to stand beside established regional orchestras throughout the country.

That very spirit was alive onstage and in the audience on Saturday night for the final concert of the 2023-24 season of the Spokane Symphony’s Masterworks Series. It was symbolized by the presence onstage of three musicians – violinist Kelly Farris, violist Roxann Jacobson and percussionist Paul Raymond – who participated in the inaugural concert of the 1974 world’s fair. More important, it was audible in the cheers that greeted the playing of current orchestra members, many of whom were born decades after the fair closed. It was audible in the applause of gratitude in response to the announcement that Paul Raymond was retiring (along with his longtime fellow percussionists Rick Westrick and Bryan Bogue).

What can account for the fact that when the orchestra’s principal oboe, Keith Thomas, rose to accept recognition for his playing in the concert, he was greeted, not by warm applause, but by shouting, whistles and foot-stamping that shook the house? Or that similar hysteria surrounded the solo bows of trumpeter Larry Jess, bassoonist Lynn Feller-Marshall and clarinetist Chip Phillips? Concertmaster Mateusz Wolski did not receive a polite handshake from conductor James Lowe; he was embraced. Lowe, himself a notable vector for the spirit of ’74, knows that Wolski is a primary carrier, and so is to be treated not merely with respect, but with love.

There were four works on the program this weekend, three of which were taken directly from the program of May 1, 1974: the “Festive Overture” (1954) of Dmitri Shostakovich, “Exsultate Jubilate” (1772) of Wolfgang Mozart, in which Dawn Wolski appeared as soprano soloist and the “Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire” (1931), ascribed to Riccardo Drigo. The fourth work, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36 (1878), was chosen by Lowe as representing humankind‘s capacity to triumph over adversity, a narrative that fits both the success of the ’74 world’s fair and the 75-year history of the Spokane Symphony.

In some hands, Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” is a rather frigid, brittle work exhibiting the same sort of overbearing insistence on celebration we heard a few weeks ago in the same composer’s Fifth Symphony. For all its impressive brilliance and virtuosity, however, Lowe’s interpretation was distinctly humanizing. The folk melody woven through the texture, peeking out between the stentorian fanfares in the brass and skittering, quicksilver figurations in the strings and winds, was projected by the strings with a genuine warmth and sincerity that transformed the impression of the whole work and dispelled the chill of sarcasm that hangs about so much of the composer’s output.

A similar, softening light was cast on the Exsultate Jubilate, a work for high voice (originally, a castrato male) and small orchestra. The solo part, now commonly taken by a soprano, was performed with flawless fluency, perfect accuracy and great beauty of tone by Dawn Wolski, wife to our concertmaster and former director of the Inland Northwest Opera. Any fears that her years as an arts administrator may have detracted from her singing may be laid to rest. Not only was her sovereign command of technique unchanged from its state a decade ago when she performed the role of Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” so magnificently, but also intact was her ability to project a feeling of warmth and sincerity in a musical line that can seem mere arid vocalism. The coloratura in Exsulate Jubilate is fiercely demanding and Wolski negotiates it without a sign of strain. The cadenzas appearing in the first and second sections of the work gave us little choice but to gasp in amazement. Still, the overriding impression was of an impulse of genuine joy and a desire that the listener join in celebrating it.

Even the Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire, a pastiche compounded during the Joseph Stalin era to showcase the talents of two Soviet ballet stars, which can seem rather small beer, was projected by Lowe and the orchestra with such warmth and sincerity as to leave everyone listening with a broad smile and open heart. Particularly notable were the strings, which played, not only in this work but throughout the evening, with moving expressivity and depth of tone. This marks what many have commented recently: that the strings of the orchestra, having for some time deferred a bit too much to the brass and winds to supply emotional impact, are playing more assertively, more expressively and with a more striking variety of tone.

To convey his or her interpretation, a conductor has control of only two elements: tempo (speed) and dynamics (loudness/softness). How James Lowe employed his understanding of these elements to produce the interpretation he did on Saturday night is to a great extent beyond the capacity of language to convey. If it were not, there would be no need of music. Lowe did, however, begin with a profound understanding of Tchaikovsky’s intentions for the Fourth Symphony, as he made clear in his remarks before the concert. In a letter to his patron and confidant Madame Nadezhda von Meck, the composer describes in lofty rhetorical style, the psychological progress from anguish and despair, through a period of escapist imagining and attempts at retreating into the past, ultimately to acceptance and a determination to draw joy from the happiness enjoyed by others.

This is a complex program, and not an easy one to delineate over a long period, and through the medium of instrumental sounds produced by other people, but James Lowe managed it to startling and revelatory effect. His mastery of transitions of tempi, rhythm and mood allowed us to experience the integrity of Tchaikovsky’s vision, whose music is often criticized as falling into unconnected segments or subject to tiresome repetition. Time and again, Lowe revealed vital significance in passages that often pass as empty note-spinning or shallow decoration. One recalls, for instance, two passages in the first movement that often are played to sound merely pretty to which Lowe imparted a ghostly, disembodied quality. Thus, we were able to understand them as transitory moments of past pleasure recalled in a period of sorrow and an integral part of the vision Tchaikovsky described to von Meck, rather than an awkward interruption.

These instances of interpretive insight and technical command were not isolated. There was scarcely a measure in the entire performance that could not be used to illustrate the same qualities. The result was not an extremely fine performance of a great work, but a great performance of a great work, great because, having mastered every technical aspect of the music, the orchestra enabled us to leave the printed page behind and to enter the mind and heart of a great artist as though they were our own. This is, or should be the goal of every performer and every listener. But success such as was achieved on Saturday night is rare

When, having concluded the performance, Lowe re-entered the stage, he was greeted by shouts, stamping of feet and wild applause, not only from the audience, but from his orchestra. Amanda Howard-Phillips, principal second violin, could barely keep her seat, so thrilled was she at having played a part in the most recent of Spokane’s improbable triumphs.