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In weeklong workshop, Spokane Symphony hopes to shape conductors of the future

Conductor sally Yu leads the Spokane Symphony Orchestra during a workshop for conductors.
Danny Cordero
Conductor sally Yu leads the Spokane Symphony Orchestra during a workshop for conductors.

Even if you’ve never attended a live symphonic performance, you know how it starts: A well-dressed conductor walks across the stage, stands on a platform, raises a baton, then brings that baton sharply down and the music begins.

But is that what successful conducting is? Waving a stick at professional musicians? That’s certainly how it’s portrayed in fiction. From astonished whispers of “Leopold!” when Bugs Bunny ascended the podium in a 1949 cartoon, to the self-destructive Lydia Tar, orchestra conductors are often portrayed as tempestuous, egocentric figures that command a reverence bordering on fear. It is the image and persona of the maestro – the master.

But if you’re talking to a real conductor, such as James Lowe, do not call them “maestro.”

“One of my absolutely least favorite words is ‘maestro,’ which I think really says that somebody has all the answers, that they are all-powerful,” Lowe says. “And conducting is not like that.”

Lowe, the conductor of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, says the role of a successful conductor has changed for the better.

“There’s this old ‘maestro’ way of being an absolute martinet and being able to fire people on the spot and terrifying the orchestra into playing, and those days are thankfully gone.” Lowe says. “Now a conductor’s job is much more about inspiring a good orchestra to play even better.”

That is the core message Lowe and fellow conductor Jim Ross wanted to send when the Spokane Symphony welcomed 14 aspiring conductors who want to be part of the future of orchestral leadership. In a weeklong workshop held at the end of March, the conductors – representing ten states and British Columbia – worked on their skills and techniques.

They rehearsed pieces with different combinations of Spokane Symphony players, including string ensembles, wind sections and the full orchestra. The workshop’s repertoire included Florence Price’s String Quartet in G, Johann Strauss’ Overture to Die Fledermaus, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony 88, and works by eight other composers.

Jim Ross says the variety is meant to give the conductors different challenges that reflect composers’ styles, musical tone and feel, and instrumental voicing.

“And it’s not always obvious what the challenge is,” Ross says. “Like, for whatever reason, despite the simplicity of what you seem to see on the page, conducting Haydn convincingly, with your full self, with your full energy, and yet having it feel like the right buoyancy of the music, is very hard to find.”

Each conductor got 19 minutes per day to work with the ensembles. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but student conductors Stephen Swanson and Sally Yu say it’s extremely valuable. Those windows allowed each conductor to get focused time with the musicians, and get feedback from Ross and Lowe.

Swanson says the critique – which included video reviews of the conductor’s motions – was essential.

“James said to me, ‘Think more horizontal, less vertical.’” Swanson says. “Somehow, that one line just really clicked something, and seemed to really help, I thought.”

Sally Yu says it can be little cringey watching a video of yourself conducting, and having that video analyzed. But she adds that a professional conductor understands constructive criticism is necessary if they want to be a better participant in the musical endeavor. And the reviews included a lot of positives.

“For really good teachers like Jim and James, they actually see strength that you don’t see,” Yu says. “So instead of being super self-critical and getting into a hole, they always find what’s best in you. And I think that’s really important stage in developing as a conductor.”

Reflecting his view that the maestro era is done, James Lowe says one goal was helping conductors understand that working with people is an essential skill for success.

“I always say to the students, you’re not conducting, for example, a Brahms symphony, you’re conducting people playing a Brahms symphony,” Lowe says. “And for me it’s all about contact with musicians with the sound; how they can move and make music with an orchestra and really engage them.”

The workshop has meaning beyond the 14 conductors who came to town. It is part of the Spokane Symphony’s efforts to broaden its role in the musical and physical communities. James Lowe says the days in which an orchestra existed simply to produce its own concerts are over.

“The symphony orchestras in America that are thriving are the ones where they are community organizations that happen to organize concerts,” Lowe says.

Orchestras today, Lowe says, need to do much more to connect with people beyond the concert hall.

As an example, Lowe says the Spokane Symphony is engaging in projects that benefit people from infancy to golden years.

“We as musicians understand and know the value of this great art form,” Lowe says. “And it’s up to us to really share that.”

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.