Unlike many of the conductors who are auditioning this year for the position of Artistic Director of the Spokane Symphony, George Hanson is already familiar with Spokane. He points out with pride that his first job was here. "I was the director of the orchestra at Eastern in 1983 -- my first job out of graduate school," he explains. "I conducted the youth orchestra as well. So I have a very close connection with the community. I always remember Spokane as my first job."
Given the fact that Hanson could lead a conversation by dropping the fact that he was an assistant to the great American conductor Leonard Bernstein, or that he recently won the prestigious Echo Klassik award for a recent CD, it's notable that he mentions Spokane at all. But his enthusiasm sounds genuine. He quickly begins to discuss the orchestra, which he will be leading this Friday evening in performances of Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral showpiece Scheherezade, Dvorak's magisterial Te Deum and a short piece by his old friend Leonard Bernstein.
"The thing that I've noted the most was the orchestra's responsiveness to my ideas about sound," he says. "They've been willing to try basically anything that I asked them to do. This whole process is a chance for us to get to know each other. Sometimes there's chemistry, and sometimes there's not. Generally speaking, though, the best way of figuring out if an orchestra and a conductor are right together is to see whether they have the same idea of what the orchestra needs. It's a great deal like meeting a person."
The fact that Hanson is so comfortable jumping into detailed work with the orchestra's musicians suggests that the Spokane Symphony is doing well from a globetrotting perspective. "Certainly the Spokane Symphony's financial situation is a big plus," he notes, referring to the organization's fiscal stability. "I'm not sure that it makes it more appealing, but on the other hand it's hardly a reason to expect that the organization over the next two years would be less vigilant, or less concentrated on its own health. The last two years have been quite brutal ones for symphonies in the United States, because for the first time in a generation, ticket sales, investment income and donations went down for virtually every orchestra in the country."
It's a situation that Hanson has faced in Tucson, where he has been conducting the Tucson Symphony Orchestra since 1996, saying that, "2002 was the year when 2001 caught up to us. That's where the growth stopped. And so what we did, after suffering a flattening of growth, was commission nine new works, and virtually every one of our major concerts will have a world premiere."
It's a risky venture, if you buy into the theory that when faced with unstable finances, symphonies should return to the meat and potatoes of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. But Hanson says that symphonies should give audiences more credit. "What we have found is one cannot have a backsliding of repertoire. We cannot become too cautious in terms of the repertoire in order to preserve the status quo. Organizations are either growing or they're dying. We are either moving forward or moving back. A music director must develop a bond of trust with the audience. And there will always be a substantial constituency who want to hear Brahms and Tchaikovsky -- and that constituency will always be served by any orchestra that I'm conducting. But in Tucson and likewise in Germany, whenever I do programs" --like a recent one he did featuring music of Frank Zappa and Igor Stravinsky -- "we have more young people showing up than we've ever had."
That result -- putting more people in seats and helping them be adventurous and enthusiastic -- is something that Hanson says fuels the orchestra in turn. "Anybody who's ever been to a major league baseball game or a NASCAR race knows the feeling. When you've felt 35 cars generating 700 horsepower each rumble past you, and experienced what it's like to have 10,000 people stand up at once, you cannot possibly watch a game or a race on TV and think for a moment that you're having the same experience. The same is true with CDs and live performances. You go to a live performance to experience that. The energy from the musicians -- some of them nervous, some of them excited -- and the energy of the audience starts to trade off, and it becomes very exciting."