News & Features » Miscellany

Part 2

Maestro for the Masses

Today, Ellen plays four concerts a week, 48 weeks a year; Smith leads the symphony through a 38-week season. Surviving that has meant hiring an au pair and being very flexible about family duties.

"When I'm in [Richmond], the symphony owns me. That's the deal; I run around like a maniac. Fine. But when I'm away, I'm studying my scores and I'm being with my family. When I'm home, I do take on a lot of the family responsibilities because I'm away a lot. And having kids just gives you a new perspective. I have to put on a concert whether Alex was up in the middle of the night or not. That's the way it goes. That's also why I started drinking coffee."

Even the phrase "running around like a maniac" seems an understatement. Let's look at the job. As musical director he's in charge of all things artistic. All things. That means that he's the one who decides what music is played, who'll play it and where. It's his face and personality that's used to sell the symphony to donors and to the public. The administrative part, he readily admits, leaves him dry. During off-season the phone calls and paperwork pile up. It's a constant battle to remind himself during five-hour phone meetings that yes, there will be music again.

"Oh, God, [planning the season] is huge! You have to know what's been played in the past, what composers have been underrepresented, what's going to work for your musicians and what your audience wants to hear. You have to ask yourself whether you're doing contemporary pieces as well as war horses. You have to scrutinize your budget to figure out if you can pay all the musicians you have in mind. You have to see what guest performers are available. I could go on about this for five hours. You know what it's like? It's like giving birth, without the physical pain. And you know, I'm not even sure about the pain part."

But when the musical season does finally kick off in the fall, Smith leaves the planning nightmare behind and focuses on music, music, music. It's what he says he lives for, what feeds his soul.

It's a good thing he feels that way because his schedule is a killer. For any hour-and-a -half concert, he'll spend 75 hours in private preparation and then lead nine hours of rehearsal with the musicians. He'll have to do that 55 times this year just to cover all the concert dates planned. Do the math and you get 4,620 hours of work. In practical terms, he's putting in 80-hour work weeks. That's before he picks up the phone once, answers a memo, visits a school or rushes to a speaking engagement.

Efficiency, as you can imagine, becomes key. Because he has to know exactly what he wants before rehearsal begins, he spends hours going through his macro-micro-back-out-again plan. Here's the basic idea. Macro: he looks at the historical context, the structure and the form. Micro: he listens to the music that "plays" inside his head (and probably tries not to scare the neighbors). Then he sits at the piano again and again with the piece. Back out again: He maps out how to make 80 wildly talented, unique and idiosyncratic people recreate what he and — we hope — the composer both heard.

"To get the musicians to think big - in the macro - is a tricky, tricky thing. Sometimes it's just a physical issue. Somebody sitting on one side of the orchestra can't necessarily hear somebody sitting somewhere else. If somebody is sitting in front of timpani, guess what they get to hear all night? Boom, boom, boom, boom. And, of course, you have personalities. Certain sections — like strings — they all play the same thing, it's more team. Wind players are more soloistic. But you have to "To get the musicians to think big - in the macro - is a tricky, tricky thing. Sometimes it's just a physical issue. Somebody sitting on one side of the orchestra can't necessarily hear somebody sitting somewhere else. If somebody is sitting in front of timpani, guess what they get to hear all night? Boom, boom, boom, boom. And, of course, you have personalities. Certain sections — like strings — they all play the same thing, it's more team. Wind players are more soloistic. But you have to be careful not to misunderstand people with these stereotypes. You have to create an atmosphere where people are thinking about what they're doing in the big picture. It sounds, well, kind of communist, but you have to help people sublimate themselves without giving up individual artistry."

In his quest to create this great communist-type music engine, he leads by example. He's efficient during rehearsal, claims not to be a yeller, but concedes that he stops quite a bit to work the details.

That detailing can feel annoying to musicians who work with him.

"In an orchestra, stopping that often can look like you're nitpicking," explains jazz composer Avery Sharp. Sharp's original work, "America's Promise," was commissioned by the Springfield Symphony under Smith's direction. He was also a bass player in the performance and sat through lengthy rehearsals. "But for me personally, that was great. People around us may have had a problem, but he kept the music first. If a doctor is going to operate on your brain, you want a perfectionist. Well, he takes the same intent and seriousness. Anybody who works with him should be ready to have a great experience, but they should be ready to work really hard to sound their best."

"Yes, I'm a perfectionist," Smith agrees. But he argues that he expects nothing from his musicians that he doesn't expect from himself.

"It can always be better. I've never been completely happy. I've never finished a performance and said, 'Oh, my God, that was incredible. I've arrived.' But that's what's great. When I was 25 years old, I conducted Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I've conducted it a lot since then. And when I'm 80 years old, I'll be conducting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. And it'll be better because, hopefully, I'll continue to evolve. It's my privilege as a musician to conduct things, put them away and be able to come back to them at another, more mature time in my life and do them again — better."

For now, though, he's focusing on who he is right now, both personally and professionally. He's got a nifty little apartment in the Fan, and it's stuffed with unpacked boxes. There are lots of streets available for Rollerblading. His son, Alexander, just started kindergarten, and there's a whole new city to lure into his musical clutches. What could be better?

"To be able to come in at a time when you can foster artistic growth, to be able to build an audience by playing better and bringing stuff that's vital and exciting, to find a place that's being talked about and acted upon — that's really exciting to me. It's been the old status quo for so long. It's so great to be part of change."

Classical Music 101
OK, you know nothing about classical music. NPR is not preset on your radio dial. Here's some advice from the experts.

Check your insecurities at the door: Orchestras really understand your dilemma. "There's this perception that you have to have a degree in music to understand classical. That you have to be highly educated to enjoy it," laments Grace Chang, director of public relations at the American Symphony Orchestra League. "Yet we don't have that mind-set for any other type of music, like country or rock or pop. Actually, you need to know nothing to like it. You just have to let yourself hear it," she says.

So, unless you brush up on the cultural history of rock music before you go to a Dave Matthews concert, just relax.

If you absolutely must have background knowledge: There are plenty of cheap paperbacks out there to get you started. Try National Public Radio's "The Classical Music Companion" by Miles Hoffman. It's a complete and surprisingly simple description of terms and concepts. That should clear up any questions you have about an oratorio or concerto. Another good choice is Classic FM's "Good Music Guide" by Jeremy Nicholas. It gives you music that makes sense for different occasions, indexes 1,000 pieces of music, and then has a hefty index. On the other end of the spectrum is "Classical Music for Dummies." It sort of lives up to its title, but who cares? It's a first step.

Tune in: Try "Performance Today" on NPR, locally 88.9-FM. "It's a little clubby," warns Mark Russell Smith. "It's like they assume you know some background stuff already." But it plays top orchestras, and the announcers (a bit annoying, you are warned) offer interesting tidbits on composers and music.

Be cheap about investing in CDs: In a former life, Bruce Cauthen, marketing director for the Richmond Symphony, owned a record store. Today, he sees sampler CDs and used CDs as the cheap route to go if you're interested in trying some new sound. Another strategy he advises is listening to "greatest hits" CDs of the big masters or else picking up the soundtrack to movies like "The Piano" or "A Room With a View." Another idea, if you do start to get hooked, is picking up NPR's "Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection."

Trust your gut: You are allowed to hate stuff. Cauthen wants new listeners to stay open, but to trust their gut reaction. "Sometimes you'll say, 'Yeah, I think I really liked that.' Other times, you'll say, 'I won't ever do that again. Ever.'"

Start slow: Take in the Symphony's pop series or the Kicked Back Classics series on a Sunday afternoon. Or try the Halloween Spooktacular which features spine-tingling scores from horror movies. You should also be on the lookout for any number of free-in-the-park concerts that the Symphony offers.

On the other hand, just jump right in: OK, if you need the full, fillings-tingling-in-your-head sound performance, plan to hear Britten's "War Requiem," op. 66 in November. Based on a poem about war, it has it all: chorus, children's chorus, drama, you name it. "It's just monumental," says Smith. "It is the Soviet Union. Eighty minutes nonstop music. So moving. Really, if you listen to Britten's 'War Requiem' and you're not moved, there's something seriously wrong with you."

— Meg Medina

Jump to Part 1, 2,

Add a comment