World-traveled Conductor James Lowe is leading the Spokane Symphony through Beethoven’s 9th Symphony this New Year’s Eve at the Fox Theater. Best known for the triumphant and unifying “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has become a world-wide holiday classic. James Lowe sat down with us to discuss his time in Spokane, the on-going importance of classical music in the TikTok age, and the Spokane Symphony’s upcoming performance of this timeless piece.
Taylor D. Waring: Over the course of your career, you’ve worked on five continents. How did you end up in Spokane?
James Lowe: A friend from Coeur d’Alene told me the Spokane Symphony was looking for a new music director. She thought I’d be a great fit, so I threw my hat in the ring. As it turns out, she was right.
Taylor D. Waring: What makes the Spokane Symphony stand out from others you’ve worked with?
James Lowe: If you walk down the street, you don’t expect every person to like you and don’t expect to like every person. And it’s the same with conductors and orchestras. Very, very rarely do you go somewhere and you have this phenomenal — from the first second — connection. That’s exactly how I felt when I met this orchestra for the first time. I think that’s special about the Spokane Symphony.
Spokane is big enough to sustain us, but small enough to have a huge impact. If you are the New York Philharmonic, you’ve got a huge orchestra and all of the world’s greatest orchestras in Manhattan. The whole world is there. Whereas our impact and our work can have a huge effect on the city and the community. And I really love that — I love that we can be a symphony that can really move the needle in a city.
Taylor D. Waring: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s what a lot of folks love about Spokane in general. I saw on your website that you’re committed to this belief that classical music is for everyone. You’re especially passionate about engaging the youth. How have you been able to do that in Spokane?
James Lowe: We’ve actually got quite a lot done. For me, the first and most important thing really is to keep pressing on this message that classical music is not a dusty, old dead art form; going to a concert of classical music is not visiting a museum of dead music. Far from it. This music is still alive and has the ability to speak to us. We have Symphony Day for fourth and fifth graders. This year over 5,000 kids from 70 schools around heard the symphony for the first time.
This year, we also started this new strand of work called Symphony Sessions, which was a dressed down thing in the Wonder Building. It was in an industrial space, with different lighting and video along with music. We have a kind of huge range of work: we are not this stuffy old institution, we’re not a gated community for the 1%. This artform that can speak to everyone.
Taylor D. Waring: Digging into that a little bit more, what specifically about this artform can speak to everyone? You’re fighting, as you said, against this idea of “dead music,” and TikTok’s stranglehold on the music industry. This is especially true for younger generations — what’s in it for Gen Z and Millennials?
James Lowe: Well, I do have this belief that people are not quite as stupid as, as everybody seems to think they are. Especially young people. You’re right: we are living in an age of a soundbite culture, but long form podcasts are also doing well because there is a thirst for digging deeper.What’s in it for younger people is what’s always been there: the astonishing emotional impact a piece of long form music can have on you.
For example, Beethoven’s 9th, which we’re doing on New Year’s Eve. It starts in this real darkness and ends with this astonishing energy of hope and unity. And that’s a message we all need in modern society. The more we move to this, as you said, TikTok soundbite, the more need there is for people to have for something that challenges them, that moves them and, and transforms them over the course of a single piece of music.
Taylor D. Waring: Looping back to Beethoven’s 9th and that arc from despair into unity. That’s been a major trajectory (hopefully) for the last few years. Is that why you chose to perform Beethoven’s 9th this New Years?
James Lowe: Actually, no. Beethoven’s 9th and the Spokane Symphony is a tradition that goes back to Eckhart Preu, our previous music director. Eckhart grew up in East Germany when the wall was still up. Religion at that time was not encouraged, so Christmas wasn’t such a big thing. Therefore they made the New Year’s celebration more important and Beethoven’s 9th in East Germany became a tradition. Eckhart brought that over.
And I think Eckhart brought it over to Spokane, quite rightly, feeling that there is no better message you can end a year with. Because I do also think, particularly now as you said, this idea of human unity and humans uniting together to overcome obstacles is really a message we need to pay attention to.
I’m also hugely inspired by the fact that Beethoven lived the most miserable life you can possibly imagine. A lonely death, and not just his deafness, but he had terrible illnesses. It’s astonishing that a person who suffered so much always comes back to this idea that the world is actually a really great place.
Taylor D. Waring: Beautiful. Touching on the lyrics to Ode to Joy by Friedrich Schiller. Schiller discussed, in some of his philosophical works, that beauty is not only an aesthetic experience, but a moral one. I was wondering if you feel similarly, especially thinking back on your desire to bring classical music to the youth of Spokane.
James Lowe: Oh, that’s a, gosh, that’s a deep question! I’ll try my best to answer it. We’ve all got an iPhone, we’ve all got the latest noise canceling headphones, or we all aspire to. We’re on this treadmill of being sold more plastic stuff. To be able to cultivate in yourself an appreciation of real beauty. To be able to be suddenly struck by something you see in nature, or you see something in a city, and all of a sudden realize the world is an incredibly beautiful place. That there’s meaning in everything.
That’s something that we should be cultivating as humans. Music is a great tool for doing that, so we need to educate young people in music. Not just as a means to be better at math, but to be good people. Being a musician and learning an instrument helps you listen to others. You have to listen to others. And that’s a skill humanity loses at its peril. So, being open to beauty and being open to listening — that’s the morality of it for me.
Date: December 31st, Time: Doors 6:30 pm, Show 7:30 pm,
Location: 1001 W Sprague Ave Spokane, WA 99210, Price: $35+,