Not for the Likes of Us? James Lowe on the Universal Truth of Music

By James Lowe
Spokane County Library District Blog
September 20, 2023

I had an interesting chat on KPBX the other day with E.J. Ianelli, who mentioned that many people think that symphony musicians grow up steeped in classical music, and it’s only that deep, life-long connection that allows anyone to understand the music we play.

Personally, I grew up steeped in Abba and Motown, my mom’s music of choice, which I still love. It was only when a teacher at my elementary school played the William Tell Overture—the cool bit that was pinched for the Lone Ranger theme—that I fell in love with classical music. In fact, I only fell in love with that overture, not realizing that there was a whole genre of music like that. Eventually, when my dad’s new car had a tape player (the modernity!), I discovered the secret mine of music that has sustained me ever since.

I may have a funny accent (I grew up in Nottingham, England), but my upbringing was spectacularly normal. I attended state schools—known as public schools in the US. My dad was a health inspector, and my mom a typist, in the days when that was a job. We were not in poverty but had to rent our TV and fridge, not having a VCR until well into the 1990s and a microwave even later.

I say this as many people think that the job of a conductor must be performed by someone of high birth or who has at least come from a “musical family.” I’m not, and many of the musicians in most symphonies are from very ordinary backgrounds too, who have dedicated much of their young lives to their passion for their instrument.

I was extremely fortunate to grow up when and where I did, benefitting from the tail-end of an educational policy that gave free tuition and instruments to those with zest and talent. I was the last of that generation, and as I graduated high school and went off to be the first member of my family to attend university, the doors slammed shut behind me.

If I were transported back to the age of 13 today, none of those opportunities would be available to me, and the pathway that led to being music director of the Spokane Symphony would be firmly blocked. This is a tragedy of our times that many young people never get to discover, let alone develop, their talent and may live and grow with their songs unsung.

Our Masterworks Two concert features music chosen by our players and includes the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, played by our own Mateusz Wolski. Mateusz and I were born in the same year, and although we’re both European, we grew up on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. His journey from Warsaw, Poland, to Spokane is more remarkable than mine, with serendipity bringing him here via New York.

That our symphony musicians have found in Spokane a place to flower should be a point of pride for our city. We all grew up on the shoulders of those who went before us and now have the privilege of bringing music alive for our community and those who follow us.

I believe music connects us to the universal truth that we are all made of the same thing. What a privilege it is for us to help make this connection, and how lucky we are to have you listen!