The Spokane Symphony sends off three percussionists retiring after more than four decades each with the orchestra

By Azaria Podplesky
The Inlander
May 2, 2024

At the end of the Spokane Symphony's current 78th season, three musicians will put away their music stands for the final time, taking a combined 142 years of symphony percussion experience with them.

Paul Raymond, Bryan Bogue and Rick Westrick joined the symphony in 1974, 1975 and 1981, respectively. They don't recall much about their auditions, though they all remember feeling a bit naive for thinking they even had a chance. They also all have then-principal timpanist Martin Zyskowski to thank for encouraging them to audition.

"I was elated when I got in," Bogue says. "I called home and said 'Mom, you're not going to believe this. I auditioned. I got in the symphony. I'm going to get paid for doing what I love.'"

The three have played under the baton of every Spokane Symphony conductor except for its first, Harold Whelan, who left in 1961.

Bogue, Raymond and Westrick praise conductor Don Thulean's ability to put on educational programs for kids that gave them the opportunity to tour around the region. Gunther Schuller, they say, loved that the orchestra was open to new ideas and was a master historian, like "one of the old composers come out of the past," Westrick says.

The trio say music director James Lowe was a perfect match for the symphony when he joined in 2019.

"I hope he stays a long time because it's just what the orchestra needs," Westrick says. "We've been very, very fortunate to have worked with a lot of great conductors. We've taken things from every one of them. It's been a fascinating journey, and they've all been pushing forward and making the group better."

To rebuild the percussion section, the symphony hosted auditions for principal and section percussion and principal timpani on April 15 and 16. Thirty candidates performed for the audition committee, which included Lowe, Bogue, Raymond and Westrick.

Personnel manager and third horn Andrew Angelos monitored the auditions, acting as a voice for those auditioning, who performed behind a screen, and ensuring auditions followed contract rules. Angelos says the auditioners performed marimba solos before moving on to excerpts of the committee's choosing.

Speaking before the auditions, Lowe says the new percussionists will have big shoes to fill.

"What's really impressive to me about our three musicians that are leaving is their sheer range," he says. "We don't just play the big symphonic works — Brahms, Mahler, Beethoven — we play Pops shows as well, so it's really important that the percussion have an unbelievable range of styles and skills that you can play with and they have to be extremely adaptable. Our crew at the moment did that really spectacularly."

The four musicians selected through the audition process — timpanist Hamza Able, principal percussionist Leigh Wilson and section percussionists William Howald and Andrew Repsold — will begin performing with the symphony during its next season, starting in fall 2024. More than musicianship and learning each other's areas of expertise, the new musicians will have to learn how to move with each other onstage, ensuring everyone gets to the right instrument at the right time, the departing trio say.

"It happens remarkably quickly, I think, because you're working toward a common goal," Raymond says. "We've seen so many people come and go in the orchestra; most of the time they bop in and it fits and they really work."

Ask the trio about standout moments from their time with the symphony, and they'll ask you how much time you have. Performances with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan (the trio agrees her performance of "Send in the Clowns" was the best they've seen), Ray Charles and Lionel Hampton, however, quickly come to mind.

Moving from the Spokane Opera House, now the First Interstate Center for the Arts, to the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox is also a highlight, because while the Opera House provided more space, the acoustics at the Fox allowed them to use the hall as an instrument.

They've also appreciated how their time with the symphony has opened the doors for other projects, including a tour with Johnny Mathis (for Bogue), a place performing with Best of Broadway (primarily Raymond) and teaching opportunities (all three).

There have been countless highs and a few lows. Financial issues have plagued the symphony in the past, and COVID ground everything to a halt. One low, however, still makes the trio laugh.

"When the symphony first bought (the Fox), before they renovated it, they decided we should have a concert or two here," Raymond says. "It was a kids concert for Halloween. Someone had the bright idea to put us in skeleton suits in blacklight. We never rehearsed it so they didn't stop to think 'If you turn the lights off and hit us with blacklight, we can't see the bars on the marimba or the music.'"

Though the fond memories far outweigh any sour ones, the trio say the time is right to step away from the symphony. Bogue thought about making the 2022-23 season his last, until Raymond convinced him to stay for another year so Raymond could end his tenure at an even 50 years. Westrick, hitting full retirement age this year, also decided this would be his last season.

"We grew up with this orchestra," Bogue says. "Our frontal lobes were not completely developed when we got into this."

"The funny thing is we were the youngest section in the orchestra at one point," Raymond adds. "Now we're the oldest."

On the symphony's end, Lowe calls losing the percussion section bittersweet.

"They are such a fantastic group of musicians, and they've played together for such a long time," he says. "There is an instinct and a camaraderie between the three of them that I'm really going to miss."

The trio's final Masterworks concert is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Expo '74. Raymond's time with the symphony will truly come full circle then, as the two concerts feature pieces he performed in his very first season.

They'll all miss the relationships they've formed with other musicians, agreeing it's been a privilege to perform with them. The opportunity to play — and experience — such major classical works onstage is going to be another big loss.

But looking ahead to retirement, the trio are excited about not having to check the symphony schedule when planning time with family. They all want to travel, with Raymond also looking forward to watching live sports and Westrick preparing to complete several home projects.

Ultimately, they're optimistic about the new percussion section and hope the musicians love and cherish their time with the symphony as much as they did.

"We've had the greatest life," Westrick says. "We played the best music with the greatest musicians in the greatest hall, and we're good friends and really, it doesn't get a whole lot better." ♦