Spokane Symphony hosts weeklong workshop for ‘complicated job’ of conductor

By Colin Tiernan
The Spokesman-Review
April 2, 2023

Armand Birk was waving his baton and leading the Spokane Symphony when conducting teacher James Ross stood up and cut him off.

Ross didn’t have anything to say to the strings or woodwind sections, but he did have advice for Birk, who apparently wasn’t putting enough emphasis on a critical note.

“I would like to see if you can get some kind of sparkle in your first beat,” Ross told him. “We have to pounce on that like a leopard.”

Aspiring conductors visited the Inland Northwest last week to learn at the hands of Ross and Spokane Symphony Music Director James Lowe. During a weeklong workshop, held at the Fox Theater and Whitworth University, 14 students had the rare opportunity to lead a professional orchestra. The conducting workshop ended Saturday with two full-orchestra concerts.

Conducting might look easy to the untrained eye, but it’s a lot harder than it seems.

“It’s a very complicated job, although it does look like you’re just waving your arms around,” Lowe said.

Conducting gigs are rare, and few people will get an opportunity to lead a professional orchestra. That fact makes the Spokane Symphony’s workshop special, Lowe said. The 14 students who came to Spokane got to “fly the aircraft” and guide the Symphony for 19 minutes a day.

“It’s quite a gift for them, and I’m really happy we can provide that,” Lowe said.

A good orchestra can get by without a conductor, Lowe said, but the best conductors can greatly enhance a performance.

“Really good conductors will change the sound of an orchestra without even saying a word,” he said. “You can really help them get to another level.”