‘It was nice to have a partner in crime’: How the Spokane Symphony’s new music director scholarship paired an enterprising young Mancunian with James Lowe


You can study conducting in university courses and take masterclasses almost anywhere there is an orchestra. But nobody teaches you how to be a musical director. In fact, Spokane Symphony Music Director James Lowe explained that most of the time, you just have to learn on the job.

This season, Lowe and the Symphony Orchestra are launching a series of Music Director Fellowships aimed at giving aspiring conductors a rare glimpse into the glamorous yet mysterious life of a Music Director.

“We want them to immerse themselves in this work and learn a little more about how it actually works – how it compares to the sizable work of just conducting an orchestra,” Lowe said.

Visiting from Manchester, ‘England’s second city’, 26-year-old Alexander Robinson will be Lowe’s first ‘minister’ – that is, his musical director. The highly anticipated finale of an intensive two-week course spent watching Lowe go about his daily duties, Robinson will have the chance to conduct the symphony in a masterclass rendition of Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70.

“Learning to lead is one thing, and there are many opportunities to learn to lead,” Lowe said. “But being a musical director is a very different job than directing – there’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes with it, that nobody really ever tells you how to do – you just jump in and hopefully swim. “

“It’s the most unique course I’ve ever done,” Robinson said.

Robinson began his musical training with the violin, then, following in the footsteps of Lowe, moved on to the viola before falling, somewhat by chance, into the world of conducting.

While still in sixth grade at university, an advanced education usually taken from ages 16 to 19, Robinson realized that although many of his classmates had a musical background, there was no band of students at school.

He takes the initiative and builds a whole. The range of instruments available was unconventional. So instead of trying to adapt the orchestra to existing pieces, Robinson decided to compose several short operas.

Today Robinson is associate conductor of the Nottingham Youth Orchestra, through which he met Lowe almost four years ago.

Since then, Robinson and Lowe have formed the kind of playful rapport and obvious mutual respect that makes them a perfect couple for this type of show, Lowe said.

“It was nice to have a partner in crime,” Lowe said.

Lowe hopes to continue and expand the scholarship. It’s about securing funding and, just as important, finding the right students.

“One of the things I’ve learned this week is how representative you have to be of the artistic side of the business side,” Robinson said. “When you study music, if you’re a violinist, you come out of college a fantastic violinist with no idea how to pay your taxes.

“But it’s fantastic because you can see the inner workings – you learn to navigate the sea on the administrative side, the business side of things, how that relates to the artistic side. Because you have to be able to do both of those things together. It’s multidimensional.

In the past week and a half, Robinson has followed Lowe to more than 40 events: working breakfasts and committee meetings, pre-concert “LoweDown” talks and school tours, not to mention long evening rehearsals in more of the rest.

“I was tired after three days, but now? I’m exhausted,” Robinson said. “I think (Lowe’s) determination is quite inspiring – don’t ever tell him I said that.”

Spokane may seem like an odd stop for a first visit to the United States, but Robinson wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Everyone is so kind, incredibly loving,” he said, praising the welcome he received from Inland Northwestern. “I would move here in a heartbeat.”

Manchester is home to two top English football teams, but when asked which one he supports, Robinson replied: ‘The Zags’.

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