by Marty Demarest

If you want to hear one of the most beautiful symphonies in all of classical music, you could attend this

Friday night's Spokane Symphony concert for their performance of Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 1. It will be performed after American composer Aaron Copland's music for Our Town, and Beethoven's daring Piano Concerto No. 4. Pianist Lee Luvisi will be at the keyboard to display Beethoven's aural fireworks, guaranteeing an appropriately exciting performance.

Or you could stay home and listen to CD recordings of all three works. There are, after all, many good performances - legendary ones, even - that have been committed to vinyl and compact disc. And they're available for your listening pleasure any time you wish, in the setting of your choice.

But conductor Robert Franz, who is the third candidate that the Symphony is bringing to town in their audition process for a new Music Director, has one very compelling reason for you to listen to the music live.

"Listening to music on a CD is like kissing on the telephone," the youthful associate conductor of the Louisville Orchestra says, smiling. "You get the idea, but it's just not the same."

The abundance of good recordings of classical music is just one of the challenges that Franz will face if he is selected to helm the orchestra. For most people, recordings are good things. They are a remarkable way to preserve a great performance or access a seldom-heard piece of music. But their widespread use is just one obstacle that orchestras now face when trying to lure audiences into ever-emptying concert halls.

"Nothing replaces the energy of a live performance," Franz continues, explaining what he wants people to understand about symphony orchestras. "The core of the experience of being in the concert hall is connecting up with the energy of the musicians, the energy of the music and the energy of the audience. It's about connecting those three elements into a whole. That's not to say that there isn't a place for CD recordings. But if people always knew that what they were listening to wasn't one perfect performance -- that it was actually a number of short performances edited together -- they might feel differently. That's not the way the world is, and that's not how people live their lives. There's a different energy to a live performance that relates much more to the way that people actually live -- the way that the world actually is."

In the process of explaining the ways that live performances mirror real-life dynamics, Franz becomes visibly excited. His arms begin to sweep through the air as though he were directing an entire violin section. When he talks about listening to CDs, he pulls into himself, almost becoming smaller. And all the time he speaks, his eyes grow brighter with intensity. Clearly, Franz is a conductor who is passionate about his work and the opportunities in front of him.

"That's something that I've always felt for music," he explains, discussing the beginnings of his career as a conductor. "When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in conducting. It was a practical thing. I was an oboist, and I thought that I should know what it would be like on the other side. And when I got up on the podium for the first time, it became clear what I wanted to be doing. I loved playing the oboe, but I became obsessed with conducting."

Franz became so obsessed, in fact, that he organized the formation of an entire orchestra. "I thought that if people wanted to hear the music, it would work," he explains, as if forming a 50-person artistic organization was easy. "And it worked, and we got to perform.

"And that was how my first job was," he continues. "I had graduated with a master's degree in conducting, and I realized that it was hard to get a job without professional experience. So I thought the best way to get professional experience would be to start a professional orchestra. So I did. I was the conductor, the librarian, the marketing person -- everything. That was the Carolina Chamber Symphony; I stayed with it for 10 years, and it's now in its 12th season. It's an extraordinary group."

That kind of experience, and the ability to make sure that all administrative effort supports the artistic output, is something that would serve Franz well. For every good idea that might help stabilize an orchestra's finances, there are three or four others that could easily lead to no noticeable change in the orchestra's sound. But Franz feels that there are business partnerships available to symphonies that would also result in artistic growth.

"I'm interested in orchestras that build bridges with other entities. I'm interested in partnerships for concerts -- partnerships with non-artistic groups -- where there's some connection to the concert that's outside of the music itself. I put together one partnership in Louisville with a Jewish education center. We created an entire event, with films and lectures in addition to the music. And there were a lot of people there who were there because they loved the music. But we also got a whole lot of people from the community who came because they were primarily interested in the other things. And they ended up encountering the music and the orchestra, and finding value there as well.

"Creating partnerships and making sure that concerts are events -- that's what I'm interested in doing. And it's not difficult to do that, even with the standard concert repertoire."

As aware as he is of the financial challenges that all orchestras currently face, Franz also believes that a symphony should never abandon its mission of serving the needs of the community. "I think the orchestra has the responsibility to educate the community about how music -- and all the arts -- fit into their lives."

The key to this, Franz says, is education, both in the schools, and in the general community. "When it comes to education, I have two goals," he explains, "neither of which is to increase ticket sales 20 years down the road. That might happen, but it's incidental. One goal I have is to make people aware that active listening is a key to being a good learner -- and music promotes active listening. And I want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to learn what it's actually like in a concert hall, so that their idea of what an orchestra is like is based on fact, not rumor or perception. Because it can be one of the most beautiful experiences a person can have, and everyone should have a chance to encounter that."

Publication date: 10/02/03

Spokane Justice for Tyre Nichols @ North Bank Park

Sat., Feb. 4, 3:30-5:15 p.m.
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