Spokane Symphony

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/12/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20924
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The Spokane Symphony, founded in 1945 under the name Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra, soon evolved into Spokane's premier cultural institution. It was the brainchild of conductor Harold Paul Whelan (1914-1981), and under his baton concerts immediately became prestigious society events. A 1961 financial and artistic crisis resulted in the dissolution of the original philharmonic organization and the immediate creation of the Spokane Symphony organization, with the same conductor and most of the same professional musicians. Whelan resigned in 1962, replaced by Donald Thulean (1929-2015), who led the orchestra through a busy schedule during Expo '74, Spokane's World's Fair. Thulean was followed by Pulitzer Prize winner Gunther Schuller (1925-2015) in 1984, Bruce Ferden (1949-1993) in 1985, Vakhtang Jordania (1942-2005) in 1991, Fabio Mechetti (b. 1957) in 1993, and Eckart Preu (b. 1969) in 2004. In 2000, the Spokane Symphony purchased the Fox Theater, a 1931 Art Deco masterpiece, and moved into the renovated hall in 2007. In 2019 James Lowe (b. 1976) took over as the music director. As of the 2019-2020 season, the orchestra was playing 35 concerts each season, from classical to pops.

The Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra

The early decades of the twentieth century saw a number of precursors to the Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra, and by 1945 two things were evident: Spokane audiences craved classical music, but because of artistic and financial challenges they found it hard to sustain an orchestra in a city of Spokane's size.

In 1945 a man arrived in Spokane who was up to those challenges: Harold Paul Whelan, a violinist with the Seattle Symphony and concertmaster of the Tacoma Philharmonic. Whelan was familiar with Spokane's cultural scene through his wife and his in-laws. He was convinced that Spokane was ripe for a professional symphony orchestra, and he dreamed of launching one. In September 1945, Whelan became a violin professor at Whitworth College in Spokane and decided to make his dream come true. He approached musicians and business leaders with his idea for a professional orchestra -- and hit a brick wall. Their attitude was that Spokane had repeatedly tried to build an orchestra and failed, so why try again?

Whelan was not easily discouraged. He gradually gathered together a small nucleus of musicians and supporters. The first public mention of the organization came on October 7, 1945, when The Spokesman-Review reported that Whelan "has already assembled a number of outstanding musicians in the area, who are holding rehearsals in the KGA [radio] studio" ("Plan Forming ...").

Privately, Whelan had moments of doubt. Trula Whelan recalled her husband saying after one early rehearsal, "I don't know if this will work or not" (DeLong, p. 2). Some of the musicians were right out of high school and had never played in an orchestra before. Others, however, were seasoned professionals and music teachers. Whelan was able to assemble a 72-member ensemble, and he also gathered an impressive group of financial patrons for his Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra Society board.

The First Years

A large and enthusiastic crowd attended the Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra's debut on December 18, 1945, at the Masonic Temple Auditorium. A critic for The Spokesman-Review said it was "brilliantly directed by Harold Paul Whelan," and that Spokane had "at last the makings of a fine symphony orchestra" ("City Orchestra Opens ..."). The orchestra went on to hold two more well-received concerts in its debut season, plus a children's concert and a traveling concert in Pullman.

The concerts became prestigious society events, with audience members dressed in formal attire. Those who missed the live concerts could hear them on KHQ radio the next day. The results were so encouraging that the board announced a second season in 1946-1947, with four classics concerts, two children's concerts, and a popular (or pops) concert.

Players were paid, but not much; one musician recalled that they were each handed $5 bills after concerts. Musicians called Whelan a rigorous taskmaster with high standards, yet with a kind and winning personality. In fall of 1946, the concerts switched to the Post Street Theater, a 1,174-seat downtown movie house. Concerts were on Mondays, because that was the week's lightest movie-going day.

On April 15, 1950, the orchestra collected a windfall when it was heard nationwide on NBC radio's Pioneers of Music series. Nonetheless, it was barely surviving financially. The organization was facing a stark reality: It was impossible to pay dozens of musicians -- as well as rent, publicity, and insurance -- using only ticket proceeds. Generous donors, and lots of them, were vital. In 1951 the board president reported that the organization was barely keeping its head above water.

The community rallied to the orchestra's support. A new Women's Auxiliary (later renamed the Symphony Associates) held successful fundraisers and provided free office help and ticket-selling services. The orchestra's artistic status -- as opposed to financial condition -- was higher than ever. When the city staged the grand opening of the Spokane Coliseum on December 3, 1954, the Spokane Philharmonic was selected to co-star with homegrown Metropolitan Opera soprano Patrice Munsel before a crowd of 8,000.

"It was, finally, the realization of the dream of all music lovers to bring the Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra to so important and big an audience," said critic Charlotte Upton for The Spokesman-Review ("Patrice Munsel ..."). Sports editor Bill Boni threw in his own comic compliment, "They sound like they been doing this all their lives, and for money, too" ("The Culchur Crowd's ...").

The orchestra returned to the Spokane Coliseum for a special concert for schoolchildren on May 3, 1957. Orchestra officials claimed that the crowd of 8,200 was "the biggest audience of boys and girls ever gathered under one roof in this country to hear a symphony concert" ("8200 Children ...").

Crisis and Rebirth

The orchestra moved its home from the Post Street Theater to the larger Fox Theater, but had trouble filling the 2,300-seat venue, and by 1960 the Spokane Philharmonic was in crisis. Attendance was declining and the organization was bleeding money. The board attempted to solve these problems by boosting the formal season to five concerts and raising ticket prices, but this only made subscriptions harder to sell.

At a fateful meeting at the beginning of 1961, a number of board members cast aspersions on Whelan for a perceived lack of quality. This angered Whelan, and the musicians too, who felt the board was also disparaging them and making them scapegoats for poor attendance. The orchestra players gave Whelan their unanimous vote of confidence, but the 32-person board remained divided into pro-Whelan and anti-Whelan factions. It ultimately voted to retain him -- but by only one vote. Whelan, stung by this narrow outcome, submitted his resignation a few days later.

But the Whelan era was not yet over. In the midst of the turmoil, all of the anti-Whelan board members resigned, leaving only the pro-Whelan faction. They held one more meeting and came up with a new plan: Dissolve the Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra organization and create a new entity out of its ashes, to be called the Spokane Symphony.

On March 20, 1961, the Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra ceased to exist and the Spokane Symphony was born. In all important details, the new organization was simply the Spokane Philharmonic under a new name, with the same conductor and most of the same musicians. The old board transferred all of its assets and good will to the incorporators of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra; the new board offered a one-year contract to Whelan, who accepted. A previously scheduled March 20, 1961 concert was rescheduled for April 3, once again at the Post Street Theater.

On that evening, the Spokane Symphony played its first chord under its new name, and the concert drew a crowd of over 1,000. The reorganization revitalized the orchestra, which successfully paid off its debts. But more change was looming -- Whelan announced in April 1962 that he was leaving to take a faculty job at Alameda State College in California, and he conducted his final Spokane concert in May. The question loomed: Could the orchestra survive without the man who had created it?

A New Leader

The answer was yes. In June the Spokane Symphony hired Donald Thulean, the dean of the Pacific University School of Music and Whelan's equal in enthusiasm and talent. On November 5, 1962, Thulean made his Spokane debut, introduced by Mayor Neal R. Fosseen (1908-2004) as "that charming, talented young man" ("Thulean Symphony Debut ..."). The Spokesman-Review said an emotional crowd leapt to its feet "for a final ovation that was a little short of hysterical" ("Initial Concert ..."). Thulean, "overcome by his reception, managed to say, 'I'm glad I came'" ("Thulean Symphony Debut ...").

Thulean's arrival inaugurated a period of artistic improvement and financial recovery. He doubled the number of annual classics concerts to 10 and launched a Concerts for Youth series. The 1964-1965 season was the best-attended in the orchestra's history. In March 1965 the board signed a three-year contract with Thulean as "music director" (a term henceforth used to describe the orchestra's lead conducting position).

Other innovations soon followed. Through state grants, a touring version of the Spokane Symphony began traveling to small towns throughout the region, including Tonasket, Colville, and Othello. In the mid-to-late 1960s, Thulean launched a series of opera performances, produced in conjunction with the Seattle Opera Association. He also began a series of pops concerts, beginning with one that included a medley from Broadway's My Fair Lady. "I've never conducted a pops concert for symphony," admitted Thulean. "Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have believed it, but I'm really enjoying it" ("Top o' the Evening"). Pops concerts became a staple of the symphony's season and soon were made a separate series.

A New Home

The symphony lost its home at the Post Street Theater in 1968 and returned to the Fox Theater in October. The Fox was not an ideal venue for an orchestra -- it was too large at 2,300 seats and the orchestra had to rehearse at 8 a.m. on Sundays to avoid the movie schedule. However, audiences continued to grow and so did the symphony's artistic reach. It was able to present many world-class guest artists, including Van Cliburn (1934-2013) in 1970 and 1971, violinist Pinchas Zukerman (b. 1948) in 1971, violinist Itzhak Perlman (b. 1945) in 1971, and soprano Roberta Peters (1930-2017) in 1972.

The biggest artistic opportunity was right around the corner. In 1974 Spokane became the smallest city ever to host a World's Fair -- Expo '74 -- and the Spokane Symphony became a staple of its entertainment calendar, playing the fair's first concert, its last concert, and 18 concerts in between. It was tapped to back a number of international stars, including Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), Itzhak Perlman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996). Concertmaster Kelly Farris explained the orchestra's ubiquity, saying, "Well, we were cheap, so why not?" (Farris).

Expo '74 also gave the Spokane Symphony a new hall, the Spokane Opera House, later renamed the INB Performing Arts Center (and now the First Interstate Center for the Arts), which would be its home until 2007. It would prove to be less than ideal for an orchestra -- at 2,700 seats it was too large, and the acoustics were muddy -- but at the time it was hailed as a beautiful, modern improvement over the orchestra's previous homes. It contributed to what the orchestra called the Expo Bump, an increase in attendance and attention that would carry the symphony through the next several years.

A New Crisis

Trouble was on the horizon, however. In 1979 a strike by the players, who belonged to the American Federation of Musicians Local 105, was narrowly averted. Then, in 1980, financial disaster hit, after attendance and state funding dropped alarmingly. The orchestra was forced, for the first time in its history, to cancel several performances. "The egg on our faces comes from having announced a season we couldn't pay for in the first place," said a clearly mortified Thulean ("Opera Hits High ..."). The orchestra also had to slash its touring schedule.

One of the biggest crises in the symphony's history followed in 1982, when Thulean notified 15 orchestra members, including concertmaster Kelly Farris and other longtime principals, that they would be either demoted or not re-hired. The result was a "complete explosion" among the angry musicians, and a unanimous vote of no confidence in Thulean (Byrne interview). The board officially threw its support behind Thulean, but in the simmering aftermath of this dispute, it would be Thulean who would leave the Spokane Symphony. Farris would remain concertmaster for another 25 years.

Thulean remained the nominal music director through the 1983-84 season, but the board brought in a number of guest conductors. Thulean landed a new position as the director of artistic affairs with the American Symphony Orchestra League, and in May 1984 conducted his final Spokane concert.

Changes in Leadership

In his place arrived a leader perfectly positioned to calm the waters: Gunther Schuller, a conductor, scholar, and soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize winner for composition. He had visited as a guest conductor during the height of the turmoil and instantly won the players' respect. Schuller loved the orchestra in return and agreed to become the Spokane Symphony's one-year interim conductor for the 1984-1985 season while a search for a permanent replacement continued. A wave of euphoria swept the players. Bumper stickers appeared around town proclaiming "Gunther Is Coming." Schuller gave the symphony instant national credibility and a new sense of stability and artistic purpose.

Schuller also had a hand in selecting the new permanent music director, Bruce Ferden, a young conductor who was on the faculty of the Juilliard School and had served as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Ferden arrived for the 1985-1986 season and quickly became a beloved figure among both musicians and audiences. He was a high-energy conductor who demanded absolute precision.

Another contract crisis arrived in 1986, with the musicians asking for a pay increase -- they averaged less than $5,000 per year -- and a pension. When negotiations broke down, the board canceled a SuperPops concert, a move the union called a lockout. It was the first time, but not the last, that a Spokane Symphony would be canceled due to a labor dispute. The deadlock was resolved within weeks, with the musicians getting a raise and a small pension.

Ferden remained well-loved among the musicians and the board. During his tenure, the symphony launched several popular new initiatives, including a chamber orchestra series and a free outdoor Labor Day concert -- a tradition that in the second decade of the twenty-first century continued to attract thousands. Then the city council of Aachen, German, lured Ferden away in 1991 by offering him the prestigious position of general music director for the city. Soon after Ferden arrived in Germany he learned he had contracted AIDS, and he died on September 19, 1993. The Spokane Symphony paid tribute to him in a November 1993 memorial concert, in which many of the musicians played through their tears.

Meanwhile, between 1991 and 1993 the Spokane Symphony went through a different kind of conductor crisis. Ferden's successor was Vakhtang Jordania, who had defected from the Soviet Union in 1983 and had been conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera. As soon as he arrived in Spokane as music director in 1991, he rubbed many musicians the wrong way. At the end of his first season, delegations of musicians approached the board to express their dissatisfaction with what they called his uncommunicative rehearsal style and lack of precision. The board expressed its full support for Jordania, but in his second season, it scheduled guest conductors for five of the 10 concerts. The board then bought out his contract for the third and final season. Jordania conducted a farewell concert in May 1993. As he departed, Jordania published a letter in The Spokesman-Review that included this advice for his successor: "Watch your back!" ("Critic Hasn't Let Truth ...").

His successor, Fabio Mechetti, would never need that advice. From the day Mechetti was hired in 1993, he was popular with the musicians, the audience, and the trustees. The musicians were already familiar with him from his stint as Schuller's assistant conductor in the 1984-1985 season and two other guest-conducting stints. Mechetti, from Sao Paolo, Brazil, was a brilliant musician and also, crucially, an easier personality than his predecessor. He would remain as music director for 11 years.

During Mechetti's tenure, the orchestra made significant advances, both musically and financially. It built up a $6.3 million endowment fund by 1997, and a new contract raised the core salary of the musicians to over $9,000 by 1998 (most musicians still supplemented their income through teaching or other day jobs). The musical highlight of Mechetti's tenure, by his own estimation, came in May 1996, when he conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in a concert that doubled as the Spokane Symphony's first-ever commercial recording session. The resulting CD's entire 5,000-copy run sold out in three months and was reissued in 2004.

A Permanent Home

In 2000 the Spokane Symphony embarked on a momentous project that would dominate the next seven years -- the purchase and renovation of the Fox Theater. This was the same 1931 theater the symphony had called home in two previous stints, but now the grand old Art Deco masterpiece had fallen into disrepair and was destined for the wrecking ball. The symphony had long been dissatisfied with the Spokane Opera House and its acoustics, and the symphony was being squeezed out of concert dates there by touring Broadway productions. When the orchestra's managers learned that the Fox Theater was threatened with demolition, they saw an opportunity to save an architectural gem and realize the dream of owning their own concert hall.

However, it would cost a daunting amount of money. The symphony launched a Save the Fox campaign in June 2000 to raise the $1 million purchase price in 90 days. The community rallied to the cause, but as the deadline approached the fund was still woefully short. An anonymous mystery donor stepped in at the last minute and guaranteed the entire purchase price, and the symphony soon owned the building.

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough. The Fox Theater could not be a truly outstanding concert hall without being completely renovated, at an initial estimate of $15 million, an estimate that proved too cheap by half -- the final price would be $31 million.

The Symphony launched a Fix the Fox campaign in February 2001. The timing could hardly have been worse. The September 11, 2001, terror attacks caused donations to dry up. This had already been a risky venture for an organization of the Spokane Symphony's size, and over the next few years there were moments when it appeared the entire project might collapse. Renovations, once scheduled for completion in 2004, had not even started by that date.

The Fix the Fox campaign ultimately succeeded for two reasons. First, the symphony was able to raise $7 million through federal tax credits and, second, several remarkably generous donors stepped up to contribute millions. One of those was Myrtle Woldson (1910-2014), heiress to a railroad and mining fortune, who turned out to be the same anonymous donor who had saved the Save the Fox campaign. Her donations earned her the naming rights, which is why the Fox was renamed the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, in honor of her late father.

With the cash in hand, renovations began in earnest. The lobby was enlarged and the seating capacity was reduced, from 2,300 to 1,727. This, along with other acoustic enhancements, vastly improved the sound. The Art Deco artwork, including a massive sunburst lighting fixture, was lovingly restored to original condition. Finally, on November 17, 2007, crowds gathered for the grand opening concert, featuring opera star Frederica von Stade (b. 1945). For the first time, the symphony's audience heard the orchestra with stellar acoustics.

Eckart Preu had replaced Mechetti as music director in 2004, after Mechetti left to devote more time to his Jacksonville (Florida) Symphony. Preu, a native of Germany, won the job over four other finalists by impressing musicians and listeners alike with his prodigious talent and his outstanding communication skills. Preu would go on to usher the Spokane Symphony into the Fox Theater era and remain at the helm for 15 years.

Another significant change took place in 2007, when Mateusz Wolski was hired as concertmaster after Kelly Farris, who had led the string sections for 37 years, retired. Wolski, a native of Poland, was concertmaster of the Annapolis Symphony, and a frequent substitute violinist for the New York Philharmonic and Baltimore Symphony. As of 2019, he remained the Spokane Symphony concertmaster.

One highlight of the Preu era came in 2007 when he conducted Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, a notoriously "high-risk" work and one that demonstrated the tremendous strides the orchestra had made over the decades (Preu interview). Another highlight was the February 2009 world premiere of Michael Daugherty's Letters From Lincoln, featuring baritone Thomas Hampson (b. 1955), an international opera star who grew up in Spokane. The piece was commissioned by the symphony, and a CD recording was released by E1 Music, a major label.

Yet Another Crisis

These triumphs were followed by the Great Recession and the most serious financial crisis in the organization's history. In 2009 a budget shortfall forced the symphony to take a series of drastic money-saving steps: A 20 percent pay cut for the entire administrative staff; the cancelation of an entire series called Symphony on the Edge; and wholesale revisions to the upcoming season's repertoire. The musician's union agreed to forgo a 3 percent pay increase.

This was not enough. The recession had also disrupted the Fox's business plan, which relied on a steady stream of outside concerts. In 2010, the symphony had to cancel its most-attended event, the free outdoor Labor Day concert. The budget crisis dragged on until 2012 -- at which point the situation deteriorated even further. In contract negotiations, the organization asked musicians to take a 13 percent pay cut, and they were in no mood to accept.

On November 3, 2012, the musicians went on strike, canceling that night's scheduled SuperPops concert. Outside the darkened Fox that evening, tuxedoed musicians marched in a picket line with signs saying, "Save Our Symphony" and "Fair Contract Now." Four more concerts were canceled before November was over. A month later, both sides hammered out an agreement, with the musicians accepting a painful 11 percent cut.

Recovery and Renewal

By 2014 the budget crisis had eased, and the musicians signed a new contract with a 7.5 percent raise. Over the next few years, the symphony developed a number of new and popular programs, including concerts centered around movies, including the Harry Potter and Star Wars series. These popular concerts were not at the expense of the Masterworks series (as the classics series was now called), but helped subsidize them. The Masterworks series consisted of 10 concerts, each one performed twice, for a total of 20 classics concerts a year.

Preu departed as music director in May 2019, having landed posts as music director at the Portland (Maine) Symphony Orchestra and the Long Beach (California) Symphony Orchestra. A search ensued, and on September 14, 2019, British conductor James Lowe presided over his first concert as the Spokane Symphony's new music director -- the eighth in the orchestra's long history.

The Spokane Symphony was preparing to celebrate its 75th anniversary season in 2020. Over those years, it had grown from a shoestring organization to the largest cultural institution in Spokane, having 320 employees (although mostly part-time), a 35-concert calendar, and a $6 million budget. It was in the top 4 percent, by budget, of the 1,124 orchestras in the U.S. "I like to call us the smallest major orchestra in the United States," said executive director Jeff vom Saal (vom Saal interview).


Nelson Durham, History of the City and County of Spokane (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912), 409, 410; The New Washington -- A Guide to the Evergreen State (Olympia: The Washington State Historical Society, 1941), 144-145; Holly George, Show Town, Theater and Culture in the Pacific Northwest, 1890-1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016); William T. Youngs, The Fair and the Falls, Spokane's Expo '74: Transforming an American Environment (Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1996) 379-380; Kathryn DeLong, Spokane Symphony, 1945-1995, 50 Classic Years (commissioned by the Spokane Symphony, 1995, copy in symphony archive); "Plan Forming for Symphony," The Spokesman-Review, October 7, 1945, sec. 3, p. 7; "City Orchestra Opens Season," Ibid., December 19, 1945, p. 6; Charlotte Upton, "Patrice Munsel Captures Crowd," Ibid., December 4, 1954, p. 1; Bill Boni, "The Culchur Crowd's Making It Tough," Ibid., December 5. 1954, sports section, p. 1; "8200 Children Jam Coliseum for Concert," Ibid., May 4, 1957, p. 1; Ed Costello, "Thulean Symphony Debut Enthralls Large Audience," Ibid., November 6, 1962, p. 6; Eleanor Rutherford, "Spokane Symphony Orchestra to Mark 25th Year Tuesday," Ibid., October 5, 1969, p. 16; Travis Rivers, "Opera Hits High C(ancelled); Financial Harm," Ibid., September 24, 1980, p. 6; "Critic Hasn't Let Truth Get in Way of Opinion," Ibid., May 28, 1993, p. D1; "Initial Concert Receives Praise," Spokane Daily Chronicle, p. 14; Bob Emahiser, "Top o' the Evening," Ibid., March 12, 1965, p. 10; Frank Bartel, "New Cultural Era Launched," Ibid., May 2. 1974, p. 3; Jim Kershner interview with Leonard Byrne, June 7, 2019, transcript in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Jim Kershner interview with Kelly Farris, May 22, 2019, transcript in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Jim Kershner interview with Eckart Preu, May 10, 2019, transcript in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Jim Kershner interview with Jim Jeff vom Saal, transcript in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Spokane Symphony program, Winter-Spring 2007-2008); Jim Kershner, The Spokane Symphony: 75 Years of the Sound of Spokane (Seattle: Documentary Media, forthcoming 2020).


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