This article first appeared in the Spokesman Review on April 17th 2020
Spring in Scotland arrives slowly and reluctantly, making its way in fits and starts designed to take the walker and gardener by surprise. A day of warm sunshine can sour to freezing rain in half a minute, and frosts can strike without warning.
Right now, I’m supposed to be in Spokane preparing to conduct Bruckner’s “Ninth Symphony,” something of an Everest of a work that I swore I wouldn’t touch until I was over 40. Although I’ve gone skidding past that landmark, thanks to COVID-19 I’ll have to wait a bit longer to climb this particular musical mountain. Instead of being in Spokane with my orchestra, I’m locked down in the rural Scottish Borders in the far southeast of Scotland with my fiancée, Charlotte.
There are far worse places to be quarantined, and I have to be careful not to sound too smug when talking about where we are and what we have here. From our kitchen window, we overlook a high moor that is home to some vocal sheep (mostly bass-baritones with the occasional wavering alto), and although it’s extremely windy up here, we are sheltered by two helpful stands of Scots pines that sound like a rushing river when the gusts blow.
Birds are plentiful and varied – a large black, white and red woodpecker steals the majority of the tallow balls we hang out, and a tawny owl auditions for Central Casting every night with a comically enunciated “too-wit, too-woo.” In the hills above our house are hundreds of fox and badger dens, not to mention some fat, nonchalant rabbits.
Charlotte is a zealous gardener, and we spent a recent afternoon putting up a rabbit-proof fence around our land. It might surprise you to learn that I’m not the most practical person when it comes to such things. Hours of swearing, minor abrasions, a mild spousal argument and a bruised thumb or two later, we stood back and admired our work with the pride of pioneers carving a living from a harsh land.
Shortly after, a rabbit the size of a large cat was sitting in the middle of Charlotte’s carefully mulched beds chewing thoughtfully on something delicate and carefully cultivated. On being chased off, it jumped clean over the “100% Effective Ezy-Install Rabbit Barricade” simultaneously voiding itself and any guarantee that came with the fence.
So far, one creature it has kept in is our new puppy, Humphrey. A terrier of uncertain pedigree, he’s 2 months old and tearing the place up, albeit very cutely. I’ve never had a puppy before, and it’s like inviting a small, filthy woodland animal into your home and hoping that it will be polite at dinner parties. So far, he’s unable to mix a decent cocktail despite my exemplary teaching. He might be a little slow on the uptake.
We have no wild turkeys in the Borders, but rather pheasants, which are the scourge of the area. Pheasant shooting is a real sport around here but one confined to the members of the gentry who can pay a few hundred pounds a day for the privilege of taking out some fowl. As the people paying for this are perhaps not the best shots, the pheasants are bred over generations to be slow-moving and even slower-witted.
They are fed along the roadside and tend to congregate in the middle of country lanes, usually hiding on the other side of a blind bend where they will panic, forgetting they can fly and instead try to run under your advancing car. I can only imagine the glee that might pass over the face of one of our shooting parties on seeing a Spokane turkey.
I had hoped that this lockdown would enable me to spend time getting to grips with Scottish Folk Fiddle, or exercising some of my specialized Zen meditation practices such as watching Netflix in my underwear. There has been little time for any of that. Sadly, all my time in the last weeks has been poured into the efforts to save the Spokane Symphony from closure and bankruptcy. Like all arts institutions, we rely on income from performances to stay afloat.
With our income reduced to essentially zero, I, most of the staff and all the musicians find ourselves out of work. We have had to make some horribly difficult decisions in the last weeks, starting with the cancellation or postponement of the rest of our 74th season and escalating quickly into mass furloughs to enable us to survive in some kind of hibernation mode until we are all allowed out again.
Keeping up with such fast-changing news has been exhausting, and I’m incredibly grateful that I have Charlotte and Humph to keep me from slipping into a funk. A musician’s job is all about bringing people together, particularly in times of crisis, so the social distancing measures make me feel rather worthless.
Because of the way our complicated contracts work, some of our musicians might fall through the cracks even with the new CARES Act. We have set up a Musicians’ Relief Fund for them, and I would urge any of you who have been touched by our work, or for whom live music in Spokane is important, to consider making a donation to that relief fund – or our Annual Fund, which supports the broader work of the orchestra. You can find a link via the support page on our website spokanesymphony.org.
Meanwhile, I think it’s important to look to a brighter future, and so we have recently revealed the details of the upcoming 75th season, which will start on Sept. 19 and 20 with the work we were due to end with this time: Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony,” a work that journeys from despair to triumph. It will be an incredibly moving and appropriate way to mark the rebirth of the Spokane Symphony in the fall.
For the moment, though, I’m writing this in our poly-tunnel greenhouse listening to the wind in the trees and enjoying the changes of light as the clouds skitter over the weak spring sun. Humph is on my lap, and it’s difficult to imagine wearing a suit. Oh, wait, the dog has jumped off and wants to go out. I’ll just finish this before … dear me, no. Too late. I’m off to find a plastic bag and disinfectant. Ah, the duties of the Modern Maestro.