Conductor strikes back: After accident, James Lowe steps in to conduct ‘Star Wars’ performance with mid-concert handoff to injured conductor

By  Emma Epperly
The Spokesman-Review
May 5, 2024

As stormtroopers, Chewbacca and Darth Vader entertained the crowd in the lobby of the Fox Theater half an hour past starting time for the Spokane Symphony’s “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” show Saturday evening, Music Director James Lowe was backstage opening the score of the movie for the first time.

Conductor Morihiko Nakahara had a fall on his way back to his hotel earlier in the day and was in the emergency room getting stitches, so an uncertain Lowe stepped in to help.

“As we were having frantic phone calls, I went to the hall and opened the score for the first time to see if I could conduct this,” Lowe said Sunday. “I had no idea if I was going to have to sight read the whole of the movie or what was happening.”

Conducting a full symphony through the score of a movie live is no small feat, Lowe said. The original score for “The Empire Strikes Back” by John Williams is timed exactly to what’s occurring on screen. “Conducting a movie is an incredibly complicated thing, because obviously the movie doesn’t adjust,” Lowe said. “There’s no room for error at all.” But as the saying goes, the show must go on.

Lowe took to the stage, apologized for the delay and explained to the audience that he would likely be sight reading most of the score after a medical emergency made Nakahara unavailable. “May the fourth be with us,” Lowe said before the performance began, alluding to the May 4 date and iconic “Star Wars” pun.

For Blue Stiley, nestled into his seat eagerly awaiting the start of the performance, the impromptu change added to his anticipation. “Immediately everyone was excited for it,” said Stiley, who was joined by his daughter Haiden, 9.

That enthusiasm was bolstered both by Stiley’s love for “Star Wars,” especially “The Empire Strikes Back,” and his anticipation for the performance. He was unsure what to expect with a live score to one of his favorite movies.

“The movie starts, and every time that there’s any score, the symphony is playing,” Stiley said, noting the actors could be heard loud and clear. “I forgot the symphony was playing 95%. It was that good. It was that down pat.” Then about 40 minutes in, Lowe saw Nakahara sneaking up beside him in the dark.

“He came and he absolutely nailed it from beginning to end,” Lowe said. “I don’t know how to describe him, what a hero and a trooper.”

‘An impossible task’

Nakahara, who conducts a handful of times a year for the Spokane Symphony, left rehearsal at about 4:30 p.m. to head back to the Davenport Grand where he was staying. He was excited for the show, he said, in part because “The Empire Strikes Back” is his wife’s favorite “Star Wars” movie, and she had come to watch him conduct.

“I get out of the car, and somehow I manage to trip over the curb,” he said. “I should have just fallen, but I think I can somehow save myself.” Like a slow-motion scene in a movie, Nakahara said he fell forward, walking as he went, trying to stay upright, before finally losing his balance into a jagged stone flower bed.

Hotel employees rushed over. Both his wife and an ambulance were quickly called as blood gushed from Nakahara’s forehead. “At this point, I’m just kind of freaking out because I’m panicking,” he said. “I have a show.”

Nakahara was taken to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where as he waited for the doctor, he began calling people at the symphony. They decided to delay the show, and Lowe offered to step in to conduct. Someone rushed up to the emergency room to get Nakahara’s score and deliver it to Lowe.

Nakahara got six stitches in his forehead and rushed out of the hospital to swoop in and finish the show. He joked that he looked like a bad cosplay of “Star Wars” villain Kylo Ren with the scars on the wrong side of his face. “I knew I was going to be late, but it was never, like, in my mind to miss it,” Nakahara said.

Mateusz Wolski, concert master and first violinist, was sitting at the Fox an hour before the show when he got an email about Nakahara’s accident. He tried not to panic, but Wolski knew such a big change would be hard to overcome in an already difficult performance.

“It’s a monumental challenge for the orchestra, because this music was not really written to be played straight through for the movie,” Wolski said. “The conductors are sort of like the glue that holds it together.” Wolski was amazed that Lowe was game to take on the impromptu role.

“It’s just kind of an impossible task,” Wolski said. But no one wanted to cancel the show, and the musicians had faith that they could pull it off.

“I don’t know how many people would be gutsy enough to even try something like this,” Wolski said of Lowe. “In the first part of the movie has probably the hardest score for us to play.” As the symphony began playing the “Battle of Hoth,” Wolski said, he felt like the symphony was fighting, too.

“We feel like we are battling ourselves,” he said. “Everybody is just pulling together. We get through the dang snow battle, and we finish together.” Then Wolski saw Nakahara sneaking by him. In a 45-second break, Nakahara took over for Lowe. Nakahara conducted the next three-minute piece with one hand, holding his earpiece in the other, Wolski said.

The audience witnessed the switch, Wolski said, bringing a new energy to the moment. Meredith and Carol Jobe flew up from Sacramento to take their grandson, Nathan, 5, to the performance.

The boy was so inspired by the ordeal he spent a couple minutes conducting in his seat, Carol Jobe said. His grandparents were impressed not only by the performance, but by the perseverance of the two conductors.

“I was just very impressed by both the courage and the grace of the director,” Meredith Jobe said. “I just thought, wow, that was pretty impressive.” The whole ordeal, Wolski said, reminded him of why live music is so important.

“In the era of perfect movies and ChatGPT and artificial intelligence, this kind of thing can only actually transpire when you have live music and the show is on the line and there’s no really second chances,” he said. “Everybody pulled together and created magic.”