This Friday night, Spokane bids farewell to Fabio Mechetti, the music director of the Spokane Symphony since 1993.
Early in his career in Spokane, Mechetti made his focus clear: the orchestra. Dedicated to building the orchestra -- in terms of sound, personnel, and the pieces of music played -- Mechetti prompted this response from The Inlander's Katherine Lewis at the end of his first season: "The Spokane Symphony has stretched itself this season. Mechetti has brought new and novel works to the Opera House, and the orchestra has shown emotional growth in its presentation and interpretations."
His devotion to the music and musicians has continued to enhance not only the sound of the Spokane Symphony but also the entire musical life of the Inland Northwest. Mechetti's commitment to his musicians has helped sustain a pool of strong performers that the Festival at Sandpoint and the Bach Festival could draw upon each year. And musical organizations such as the Spokane String Quartet and Zephyr, while offering musicians additional sources of income and challenge, benefited from the new performers whom Mechetti helped hire during his time with the orchestra.
Mechetti took time out of his preparations for Friday's concert to talk with The Inlander about his time with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and his legacy in the region, which stretches far beyond the dozens of concerts he has conducted here.
Q: How does it feel to have accomplished your tenure with the Spokane Symphony?
A: It feels pretty good. I think the goal of every conductor, or interpreter, is to do the best they can in achieving a high artistic goal. If there is something that I'm really excited about in Spokane, it's the fact that this orchestra is definitely a better instrument than it was 10 years ago. I can think of several concerts where the orchestra not only played as well as it could, but far beyond people's expectations. I think this is the legacy that I can leave in Spokane. The other thing that I think is very important is that probably 50 percent of the orchestra have been hired since I've been music director. I think that adds to the potential of the orchestra. Most of these people are young -- under 30 or so -- so this is definitely something that's going to shape the future of the Spokane Symphony.
Q: When you think back on your years with the Spokane Symphony, where did you think you were going to put the most work early on?
A: I think the quality of the orchestra has always been better than people expect in a city, with a budget of that size -- especially considering the salary that these musicians make. When I was assistant conductor there in 1984 and 1985, I was surprised to see an orchestra of that quality in a relatively small city. And that was not that much different when I came in 1993 as music director. But one of the biggest challenges I've had, and that I think will continue to be so for some time, is the fact that we basically have a different string section every concert. It's very difficult to get a consistent sound and a consistent performance when you basically have a different string section every concert. Things have improved somewhat over the last couple of years, but I remember seasons where every concert, there were people I was seeing for the first time, and it was somewhat frustrating to try to develop a sound when the orchestra was different every week. But the biggest challenge, then and now, is the fact that our musicians are still very much underpaid for what they offer onstage and offstage. The focus right now is the Fox, and I think that's a very important element of the orchestra. But at some point we need to address the issue of giving at least the core musicians a sustainable living wage -- that they can rely on the orchestra for their livelihood. It's a demonstration of the community in believing that this orchestra deserves to be better paid than they are right now.
Q: I think that would affect the sound as well. People who are better paid can afford to spend more time working on their music for performances.
A: Well, yes and no. I don't believe that an orchestra that's better paid necessarily plays better than other orchestras. The Spokane Symphony is an example of that. There are orchestras that are much better paid that don't play as well as they do. But it certainly gives the chance for a musician to concentrate more on what they do -- to practice more, to not think about leaving the orchestra for other jobs because they can't live on their salary, things like that. So there is a level of comfort that we should give to the musicians -- and also reward them for the many years of dedication that they have given to the orchestra. But I believe that, also, by paying better, we'll be able to attract -- when we have openings -- better musicians as well. The pool will be larger for improving the orchestra whenever we have openings.
Q: A few years ago I heard you conduct Delius' Sea Drift, which might be my favorite performance you gave with the Spokane Symphony. Do you have a favorite performance?
A: Yes, but it was not that one, I have to say! It was a great thing to do that with Thomas Hampson, though. What excites me about this orchestra is that I think they thrive the best when the program is theoretically beyond the grasp of a smaller orchestra. Mahler's Sixth Symphony was something I think they did very well, and Mahler's Third, early in my career there, they did very well. There was a concert of Russian ballet music that I did a few years ago with The Rite of Spring.... So for some reason the orchestra, because they know how difficult it can be to perform those pieces, and how rarely they have the opportunity to perform those pieces, there is a sense of extra responsibility in preparing those concerts to a level that I think is beyond what people expect.
Q: I always wanted to hear you speak more. I heard some from you at concerts at the Met....
A: I don't like to speak for several reasons. First because, personally, it distracts me from the job to do, and it distracts the musicians as well. Second, if you don't believe that music can speak for itself, something is wrong. Unless it's a brand-new piece, I think that most of the repertoire we play is self-explanatory.
And also I think there is an element of awe in a concert experience that should be respected.
Q: Can you tell me about how you selected the music for your final concert as music director?
A: I think it was an obvious choice, because there is a historical reference there. We recorded Beethoven's Ninth during our 50th anniversary season. It's a piece that involves not only the orchestra but also the chorale. It's a piece about joy and celebrating things that music is all about -- the idea of brotherhood and community. So I know it's one of the most popular pieces that we could perform. But the choice goes beyond that; it's just a representation of what I feel about the orchestra, and what I feel about the place of the orchestra in the community. And it's a way for me to leave by working with the orchestra and the chorale that have been such an integral and important part of my career.