The NWSO was founded when then-UW grad student Anthony Spain decided that instead of chasing the typical guest-conducting gigs, he’d create an orchestra that focused on local composers. Thirty years on, he’s presented 150 works by locals.
In the days before kids went to sleep at night with earbuds stuck in their heads, a child immersed in a music-loving family might drift into dreamland to whatever mom and dad were playing on the family stereo.
For Northwest Symphony Orchestra founder and longtime music director Anthony Spain, 54, bedtime listening when he was a boy meant hearing albums played in the room above his bedroom — often classical pieces by Brahms, Beethoven or Bruckner, now among the conductor’s favorite composers.
“I think music got into my blood that way,” says Spain.
Northwest Symphony Orchestra 30th Anniversary Concert
8 p.m. Saturday, April 29 at Highline Performance Arts Center, 401 S. 152nd, Burien; $15-$20 (800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com).
How lucky for music lovers in this region.
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Spain has spent three decades developing, with laser focus, NWSO as a stellar ensemble that performs classical repertoire — Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn among others this season — while also embracing a singular mission to present new music by Pacific Northwest composers.
Set to celebrate NWSO’s 30th birthday — and the 150 works by Northwest composers the orchestra has performed over the years — Spain is conducting an anniversary concert Saturday, April 29.
Not content to rest on laurels, Spain says he is excited by NWSO’s continuing progress.
“Even in the last couple of years, there’s been wonderful growth. People comment on our core sound being so warm, and the level of musicianship has never been higher. There’s wonderful subtlety and imagination. I always want to take things to the next level.”
That constant pursuit of a musical ideal began with Spain’s decision in the late 1980s to form an orchestra while working toward his doctorate in conducting at the University of Washington. Unlike most newcomers hoping for opportunities to guest-conduct anywhere they can, Spain chose to increase his work experiences by creating NWSO.
“It’s good to be young and naive and full of energy,” says Spain. “Every conductor follows his or her own path, but those first formative years are so important. Basically, I got on the phone and called people to see if they could participate. The orchestra really started as just a pickup group for a young person excited about conducting.”
Spain built his dissertation around the evolving project. He had on his committee Gary Hansen, then a UW professor of entrepreneurial economics.
“He brought a business perspective. He said to me, look, there are a lot of orchestras in the area. You need to differentiate how you’re going to do this. So I came up with the vision, which was having the orchestra be there for the community and support our local composers.”
The 30th-anniversary concert, which will feature the world premiere of renowned composer (and Tacoma resident) Samuel Jones’ “Fanfare for Orchestra” as well as Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” is testament to a life spent expanding upon a good idea.
“It’s one of the most difficult things in the world to grow that kind of situation,” says Jones, “and make a transition between a gathering of associates to an organization with a board, subscriptions series, educational activities, recordings and ASCAP awards. Anthony carved a special niche for his orchestra performing Northwest composers while also drawing upon the entire canon of symphonic music.”
A look at those 150 Northwest works — including 66 world premieres commissioned by NWSO — includes pieces from an eclectic list including the late, prolific Alan Hovhaness, Cornish professor Janice Giteck, film scorer Mateo Messina and Gregory Short, who drew inspiration from Native American culture in such NWSO premieres as “Chief Seattle” and “The Raven Speaks” before he died in 1999.
“Northwest composers know they will find a ready avenue of support from Anthony,” says Jones. “He has truly created a welcoming environment for the newness of these pieces.”
Born in London, Spain moved to the U.S. at age 2 when his father, a physicist, was drawn to teaching opportunities at the University of Chicago and then the University of Maryland, where Spain spent most of his childhood.
“Both my dad and mom loved music,” Spain says. “My dad was always a wonderful organist, pianist and harpsichord player. He conducted a church choir and had a madrigal choir that sang at the Maryland state capitol every Christmas.”
Spain studied trumpet and was coached on voice by his father, becoming a boy soprano. In his senior year at the University of Northern Colorado, Spain was part of a vocal jazz group that released a Grammy-nominated album, losing the award to Manhattan Transfer.
He followed his graduate studies at Colorado State University with a move to Seattle and the UW.
“The area reminded me of Britain, and I thought I would enjoy it, rain and all,” he says.
Spain guest-conducts a couple of times a year in the U.S. and overseas, teaches at Seattle Central College and is married to Linda Spain, a mental health therapist who also provides some administrative help for NWSO.
“It gives me the greatest pleasure to be part of this community and to feel like we’re adding to its strong cultural identity,” says Spain. “I’m particularly proud of what the Northwest Symphony Orchestra has become as a group of musicians and people.”