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Complete Musician: Mark Russell Smith, New Conductor/Music Director for the QC Symphony Orchestra PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 09 April 2008 02:11

Reader issue #679 On March 8, the Quad City Symphony Orchestra announced that Mark Russell Smith would be its new music director and conductor. And as the Minneapolis-based musician serves as artistic director of orchestral studies at the University of Minnesota, director of new-music projects for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and music director for Virginia's Richmond Symphony Orchestra, his current positions alone made him sound an appropriate, and sufficiently intimidating, choice.

Yet a day before our recent phone interview, Smith received an e-mail from the Quad City Symphony Orchestra that managed to intimidate even him - a document, he says, titled "Repertoire from 1917 through 2007," listing every piece the venerable area institution has performed publicly during those nine decades.

Wow, I say.

"I know," he says. "It's a little light reading."

Smith continues: "The Quad Cities has a fearless orchestra, from what I can see studying the repertoire. They're doing big Mahler symphonies and huge orchestral show pieces and concert operas ... and, you know, to be part of that legacy, to see an orchestra that's been around for so long, and a community that's embraced the orchestra on such a level, that's fantastic.

"I mean, they're afraid of nothing," Smith says. "I'm the same way."

With further credits including guest-conducting for the Houston and St. Louis symphonies, associate-conducting for the Phoenix Symphony, music-directing for the Cheyenne Symphony, and collaborating with legendary cellist Yo Yo Ma for the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, it's understandable when Quad City Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Jeff vom Saal says that Smith "rose to the top of the list" of candidates. "He brings the wealth of experience, the energy, the excitement, and the ability to take the organization to another level."

Such sentiments are shared by those with whom Smith is currently working. Wally O'Brien, the incoming president of the Richmond Symphony's board of directors, has been Smith's colleague for three years, and says, "Mark has done a superb job with the symphony. What he does best of all is identify the potential in young talent and raise them to their full potential - I think he'll be a great addition to your cultural community." (With Smith leaving his Richmond position after the 2008-9 season, O'Brien adds, "Although it makes the people in the opera and the ballet down here shudder a bit to lose the brightest star in our artistic galaxy ... .")

And Jerry Luckhardt, interim director for the University of Minnesota School of Music, states that after Smith's debut program with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the positive reaction was "instantaneous - musicians loved him, management loved him, audiences loved him. He's just a marvelous musician, and a really terrific, warm-hearted person. I mean, he's very much the complete conductor. He's like the next generation of conductors."


The Background and the Ear

A Phoenix native, the 45-year-old Smith says that music has always been "the family trade. My father was a choral conductor, and my mom taught elementary-school music for over 40 years and was the church organist, so I grew up singing in choirs. Not that there was pressure put on me or anything. That's just what we did."

Smith also played the cello as a child, but recalls that even at a young age, "I always wanted to be a conductor. But I knew that to be a good conductor, I needed to be as good a player as I possibly could be. And so taking the time to really study the cello, and to play chamber music, and to play in orchestra, and to take classes, I thought, was a really important part of getting the background that I needed."

After high school, Smith attended Northwestern University for two years before transferring to New York City's Juilliard School, where he relished the opportunity "to study an instrument in a place like that, where, of course, there are concerts going on year-round, and you can hear the best in the world. I studied the cello, but I also studied music. I went to every concert I could, and the Metropolitan Opera ... . I was just trying to become the most complete musician that I could be. And the strategy worked, I guess."

Following graduation from Juilliard, Smith discovered that Philadelphia's renowned Curtis Institute of Music - what Smith calls "a fantastic, very selective, very special place for musicians" - had a pair of openings in its conducting program. Smith applied and was accepted, though he readily admits that "it wasn't that I was such an experienced conductor. My teacher chose me because I was a good cellist, and because I had the musical background that he felt was necessary to become a successful conductor.

"You know," says Smith of his Curtis instructor, "he could teach people to pick up a baton and wave it. That's the least important part. It's the background and the ear that's the most important part of being a good conductor."

It was while studying in Philadelphia that Smith also made his professional conducting debut, albeit an accidental one.

"I was the assistant conductor of a Stravinsky opera called The Rake's Progress," he says. "I was your typical assistant conductor - you prepare the chorus, and you do the backstage conducting, and you help out the conductor, and you bring him coffee, and that kind of stuff. And he got sick. He was an older conductor - this was maybe four days before opening night - and it was clear that he wasn't going to be able to do it.

"So the artistic director of Curtis called me in - as a student still - and said, ‘We want you to take over this production.' I'm like, ‘Whoa.' But you've been living with the piece, and you're a young conductor, and these are the kinds of moments you hope for, you know?

"It's not that you wish badly on your older colleagues," continues Smith with a chuckle, "but you gotta be ready to step in at the last minute."

His subsequent success with the Stravinsky piece, says Smith, led to a full-time position as assistant conductor with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Singers, which he assumed upon his graduation from Curtis. "And that success," he says, "kind of started the ball rolling."

Indeed. In addition to Smith's aforementioned credits, his post-Curtis résumé includes guest-conducting for the Colorado, Jacksonville, and Eugene symphonies, the Orchestra London in Ontario, and the European Center for Opera & Vocal Art in Belgium.

"It's not like the Berlin Philharmonic started calling me the next day," says Smith of his unexpected conducting debut. "But you have success, and then you build a reputation, and then doors open up, and hopefully, you know, success breeds success."


Perfect Fit

Mark Russell SmithIn 1999, Smith accepted the position as music director for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, and in June of 2007 - while continuing to work in Virginia - he also took on his current, combined post with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the University of Minnesota. ("This has been a very busy, complicated year," he understates.) Yet with the extensive travel required between the East Coast and the upper Midwest, and the full-time commitment required by his dual positions in Minnesota, it was clear to the musician that "I couldn't continue to do both jobs."

Happily, though, for Smith and his family - wife Ellen Dinwiddie Smith (a horn player with the Minnesota Orchestra) and sons Alexander and Noah - he soon discovered that the Quad City Symphony Orchestra was seeking a replacement for the departing Donald Schleicher.

"With the Quad Cities, it's kind of like the stars aligned," says Smith. "They had an opening for a conductor, and it's just the right size [currently at just under 100 musicians], and geographically it's fantastic - it just seemed to be a perfect fit in a way."

And according to vom Saal, a musician of Smith's caliber was just what the Quad Symphony Orchestra was hoping to find. "First and foremost," says vom Saal of what the organization expects of its music directors, "is excellence on the stage - bringing passion to everything we do. That's really the key.

"Beyond that," he continues, "is the ability to energize and engage the community in a way that gets people to be interested in what we're doing, and to want to be a part of it, and to continually strive to exceed and excel at producing fantastic concerts."

Smith applied for the position and was selected as one of the five finalists, each of whom - in addition to meeting and interviewing with Quad City Symphony Orchestra board members - was asked to arrange a concert program that he would subsequently conduct in the orchestra's Masterworks Series presentations for 2007-8.

Vom Saal says that while there were a few specific parameters regarding the conductors' public "auditions," such as making sure their repertoires didn't include pieces recently performed by the Quad Cities orchestra, the five applicants "were pretty much given free rein. Each candidate looked to do something that was a little bit unique, and certainly bring to the stage something that they felt strongly about, and felt that they could present in a really strong way." Not the easiest of tasks.

"To pick one program that tells everything about you artistically and, you know, emotionally, is impossible," says Smith, "because there's so much music, and there are so many different perspectives. And you're limited in what you can choose because of repertoires that have been played in the past. You know, ‘We played this two years ago ... .' There are all sorts of reasons why you can't do certain things. But, of course, there's more than enough repertoire."

For what he calls "the centerpiece" of his program, Smith opted to conduct excerpts from Prokofiev's symphony for his ballet of Romeo & Juliet. "I kind of predicated around the Romeo & Juliet suite," Smith says of his chosen quartet of musical works. "It's a piece that shows a lot. It's a virtuoso challenge for the orchestra, and also for the conductor, but it's emotional and it's colorful and it's evocative, and can show a lot of range."

Smith hoped to demonstrate further range in his selections of Wagner's Prelude to Tristan & Isolde and Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. "Again," he says, "you want to show your flexibility, and you want to show your stylistic ability, and these two preludes work perfectly together. Musically speaking, and I don't want to get overly nerdy about it, but it takes a very different technical approach to play the French style and the German style - especially the German romantic style. And to have the opportunity to work with the orchestra and show that, is an important part of who I am as a musician."

And finally, in what Smith describes as "kind of the palette cleanser" to the Russian, German, and French pieces, he chose to conduct the American composer Alexander Grigorevich Arutiunian's Trumpet Concerto, with the Philadelphia Orchestra's David Bilger as principal trumpet player. "The two preludes are very intense in and of themselves, but then you put them together - and Romeo & Juliet is also extremely intense - and it takes a lot of concentrated listening. So we needed a little lighter fare in the middle.

"It's all about balance," says Smith. "And when you're creating a program, it's all about balance within the program."

With performances of the works - under the Masterworks Series blanket title Legends of Love - set for March 1 and 2, two preliminary rehearsals were scheduled two weeks prior, which would be Smith's first opportunity to meet the orchestra. "However," says Smith, "that was a really bad weather weekend, and what was supposed to be two rehearsals actually turned into one rehearsal, and even at that rehearsal, only about half the orchestra was able to make it."

Plus, with out-of-town commitments looming, Smith adds that "even I left early because of the weather. So that was my initial experience [with the group]. Literally blowing in and out of town."

One of the local musicians in attendance, Janet Stodd - the Quad City Symphony Orchestra's sole piccolo player - states that the music director wasn't put off by Mother Nature's interference. "He was very flexible with that," says Stodd, "very clear with the direction he wanted the music to go, and he had a lot of energy and enthusiasm," more of which was on display when Smith returned for the concerts' final four days of rehearsal at the end of February.

"Even the little things, like intonation and balance, were worked on a lot," adds Stodd. "He did a very good job, and it all came together very well."

Despite what he calls "a truncated visit," Smith reports that "we accomplished a lot in a little amount of time," and extends high praise to the orchestra's musicians.

"As the leader," says Smith, "you are the guy who sets the tone, and who pushes and cajoles and inspires and collaborates. And with an orchestra, it's so much about chemistry, and how your personality works with the personality of the orchestra, and it seemed like this was just a nice fit. The musicians were very responsive and really played beautifully and worked really hard, putting together a difficult program. It felt really good."



Mark Russell Smith Smith's audiences, including the Quad City Symphony Orchestra's board members, appeared to agree. "There was a palpable energy in that concert hall," says vom Saal of March 1's Legends of Love performance at the Adler Theatre, "that was reverberating through the audience members, from the musicians, and from the podium. That's something that is uncommon, and when you get hold of that, you stick to it."

Less than a week following the Sunday-afternoon concert at Augustana College's Centennial Hall, Smith was offered the Quad City Symphony Orchestra position, though the conductor states that he wasn't necessarily surprised by the speed of his notification. "As soon as the last candidate appears," says the veteran of many such hiring processes, "then they try to figure it out as quickly as possible."

Vom Saal adds that in addition to Smith's musical skills, the Minnesota conductor's proximity was also a consideration in his hiring. "We want someone who can be authentically involved and integrated into what we do," he says. "He's got a busy routine, but it's a 35-minute flight here."

And Smith states that he's looking forward to a less-taxing commute, with his Richmond Symphony obligations ending not long after he assumes music-director duties for the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. "This current season right now is my last full season" in Richmond, he says, "and next year, I'm only doing about four weeks while they're searching for my successor there. So even though I'm still music director, my commitment time-wise is much, much, much less than it is this year."

The new conductor is also eager for the opportunity to get more Quad Citians to experience the orchestra, saying, "I think there is a big untapped audience." (Although, referencing that nine-decade dossier he recently received, he does add, "There's certainly a big tapped audience.")

It's the sort of audience the conductor is currently reaching in his position as director of new-music projects for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. "Part of what they do," says Smith of the ensemble, "and what differentiates them from many other orchestras, is a big commitment to the music of living composers and contemporary music." This commitment is best expressed in the chamber orchestra's Engine 408 Series, which finds Smith and the group's three-dozen players routinely performing - and collaborating on - new scores by living artists.

"My main focus as director of new-music projects," says Smith, "is to head up that series, and be seeking out composers and looking at scores, and kind of heading up this whole change - this whole drive - of being a really vital force in new music."

And with new music, says Smith of the Engine 408 Series, have come new attendees. "There are a lot of young people in the audience there because it's something different, and it's not a stuffy experience - it's a breathing, living, vital experience."

Smith recognizes that the opportunity to head such a project doesn't often present itself. "You generally just don't have the resources or the time to commit to new music like that," he says. "To be able to talk to the composer, to work with him, and to get his ideas. And to bring your ideas, as an interpreter. To make the piece not just fit together in a mechanical way, but to imbue it with the life that it needs.

"It's a big challenge," he continues. "It's a big responsibility. But it's also very enriching, and it's a really important part of what we do as artists, you know? As far as leaving a legacy."

The Engine 408 program hasn't escaped the notice of vom Saal. "They're doing some amazing things," he says, "and really have out-of-the-box thinking, which is working really well for them. New music is something that, when done correctly, can sort of envelop the organization and the orchestra and the community, and I think what he's doing there will hopefully give us the opportunity to apply some of those ideas here."

With several months to go before Smith assumes his Quad Cities position, neither vom Saal nor the new music director announce any immediate plans regarding the orchestra's future. "You know, it's still all so new," says Smith. "We have a lot of ideas that are just kind of percolating, and we're seeing what can work out."

But he does concede that in addition to pleasing the symphony's regular patrons, capturing the interest of newer and younger audiences is vital to the organization's survival, "especially given how solitary life has become," he says. "How much easier it is to be alone yet have the world at your fingertips.

"In a way, the Internet and technology make us very solitary - other than playing Internet games with 5,000 other people or whatever. The whole world is at your beck and call, but the communal aspect of it, the whole idea of doing something with other people ... we're starting to lose that a little bit. And that is such a fundamental part of the concert experience, which is what makes us counter-cultural, in a way. We're communicating from the stage, you know? We're communicating for the people out in the audience.

"Providing that kind of experience is what we need to do," says Smith. "And figure out how to reach these people, and how to advertise, how to market to them, and how to get them into the concert halls. What you don't do is change your product, so to speak. I mean, we have something that's unique and gripping, and once you're in the hall and you experience that unique moment, then we got ya. Being in an audience, living in that unique moment ... . We have to encourage that. We have to make sure that that is still a possibility. We have to draw people together. Because that's what music is all about."


For more information on the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, visit (

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