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As Mark Russell Smith raises his baton, the Richmond Symphony readies for change.

New Kid on the Block

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Richmond Symphony Masterwork's Concert
Featuring Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, Opus 30 in D minor with guest pianist Tzimon Barto, Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture and Respighi's Pine of Rome
Mark Russell Smith, conductor
The Carpenter Center
Sept. 18 and 20
8 p.m.
$10-$48

Twelve years ago, George Manahan stirred up the city when he became the Richmond Symphony's new music director. With this upcoming season, Richmond will be stirred again. Mark Russell Smith has been appointed music director/conductor of the Richmond Symphony, and he is ready to make some noise.

Smith beat out six other finalists for the position in last season's highly publicized search. He makes his debut as music director at the Symphony's opening Masterworks concert Sept. 18 at the Carpenter Center with a program including Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, Opus 30 in D minor, popularly known as the piece that literally drove Geoffrey Rush crazy in "Shine."

While Smith's new role is met with anxious anticipation by many symphony supporters, some Richmond Symphony musicians are apprehensive about what this self-described "new young whippersnapper" has in store.

Smith's reputation as a demanding maestro with the Springfield Orchestra in Massachusetts and the Cheyenne Orchestra in Wyoming precedes him. However, he is quick to point out that this trait, combined with his honesty and outgoing personality, should gain him not only the musicians' respect, but allow him to develop a truly great orchestra.

"What's really important as a music director is to be open and honest," Smith says. I give honesty and expect it in return. When I was in Richmond, I was very demanding — not in a jerky way, but in a way that got things done. Part of leading is getting people to rise to a new level."

A musician who recently resigned from the Richmond Symphony explains the feelings of his former symphony-mates with whom he keeps in close contact. "Some of [the musicians] don't see [the appointment] as justifiable by their voting or decision-making," he says. "The board just jumped in and hired this guy so quickly that I think the repercussions are going to be very negative over the next few years."

Smith is aware of the wave of anxiety that has passed through the symphony's ranks, but he easily dismisses it, noting that it is simply a fear of change. "All that matters to me is good playing," he says. "If the musicians play great, then great -- there won't be any problem. I want to play with these exact musicians, and I want them to play well. They are experts at what they do, and I have as much to learn from them as, hopefully, they do from me."

Michelle Walter, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, adds, "People always feel a little nervous when someone new comes in. Change is not easy. But I also think some people are letting their imaginations run away with them. He was definitely the best [of the seven candidates] in my eyes."

Adam DeGraff, the symphony's principal second violinist, is one musician who is eager to work with Smith. "Mark seems to be really collaborative and very interested in what we want to do," DeGraff says. "He just lets us play, and that allows us to play the best that we can. If there is nothing that needs to be said, he won't say it, but if he wants something different, he has backbone to spare."

Smith is excited about his move to Richmond. "There seems to be a momentum for the city … and certainly for the orchestra," he says. While other orchestras may be struggling, he believes Richmond is different. "To come to a city that already has so many positive elements already in place [a supportive audience, board and staff] makes it a very attractive place to live and work," he says.

He adds that, "I am really looking forward to getting to know these players on a deep level and working together to create a masterpiece. To be a good conductor, you have to be a good psychologist. You really need to understand people well."

Bass trombonist Scott Cochran believes Smith is succeeding with this objective. "[Smith] is making it very easy to get to know him as a person," he says. "Then, when he's on the podium throwing out abstract concepts, the musicians are able to … understand where he's coming from better."

Smith is accustomed to working with a lot of different people. For the past three years, he has been music director for both the Springfield Orchestra in Massachusetts and the Cheyenne Orchestra in Wyoming. He ended his directorship with the Cheyenne Orchestra this year, but will remain with the Springfield Orchestra through the 1999-2000 season. Beginning with the 2000-2001 season, Richmond will be his sole focus.

And Smith already has many plans for Richmond. "Developing a younger audience is critical, but I also would like to focus on education," he says. "No matter what a person's level of experience is, I hope to show that classical music can reach the person and that the arts have relevance in their lives.

"I want Richmond to be the standard-bearer of excellence. We are all in this because we love music and great creations. If we are all striving together to really get the music into the people and bring in into their lives, that is where we are rewarded — a reward for the soul. We are fortunate to make our living this way, it's a

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