The making of a maestro / Home / Spring Table of Contents / UMass Music Department

 

N ORCHESTRA, WHEN IT IS WARMING UP, resembles a lively family gathering in which everyone is trying to make his point and no one is listening. The chortling bassoons, the plaintive violins, the uxorial clarinets, the kettle drums grumbling like a grandfather all meld together in the friendly, if chaotic, banter of individuals on close terms. On a gray Tuesday afternoon in early spring, the darkened cavern of the Fine Arts Center concert hall is warmed by the pre-rehearsal hubbub of one such family, the UMass Symphony Orchestra.

At 4:29 the rehearsal was called for 4:30 sharp the leader of this cacophonous clan strides out from one of the wings and clips briskly across the stage. Score under arm, baton in curled fingers, Mark Russell Smith, UMass's first nonresident conductor, is tall; dashing without being foppish (his oversized white surgeon's shirt hangs loose, this afternoon, over black slacks); and intimidatingly efficient. As he takes the dais, every voice in the familial babble suddenly merges into agreement, obediently following the concertmaster in sounding the unifying "A."


 

"Good afternoon," says Smith, his voice crisp as an oyster cracker. (It is 4:30 on the dot.) "We start at the fourth bar of twenty-seven, in two under tempo." The strings, in this part of Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, enter like silvery raindrops zigzagging down a window. With many stops and starts, the sound gathers into a flood of music that is turgid, ominous, beautiful.

In theory, rehearsals like these are supposed to be little more than fine-tuning. "We aren't here to learn notes together," says Smith, who is principal conductor of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra along with those of the cities of Phoenix, Arizona, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Sibelius the student players are polishing today is very familiar to them; resident conductor, Frederic Cohen of the music faculty has had them working on it since the beginning of the semester, readying them for Smith's final touches a few days before the March 2 concert.

To lay ears, the sound is good. To Smith, a conductor since he was younger than the students he is drilling, it's imprecise. He abruptly cuts off the music every few bars, drawing sound shapes in the air over his music stand to illustrate what he's after.

"Bigger pitches," he barks. "Much bigger pitches. The winds really have to be much more rhythmic . . . .The horns were one bar late . . . .Go back to three before thirty-one."

The student musicians jump in again, but again Smith interjects.
"Here's what I got," he says. He sticks out his hands in a tight, timid gesture. "Here's what I asked for." He extends his arms in a generous sweep, palms up, as if offering a benediction.

MITH ASSUMED HIS unusual role in the campus music family three years ago, when UMass and the Springfield Symphony always in loose association because of the faculty members who play in the city orchestra found they each were in need of a dynamic conductor at exactly the same time. Facing slumping attendance at concert halls nationwide and imbued with determination to keep the symphonic tradition alive, the SSO needed a conductor with the ability to draw audiences, and UMass needed one to help train the next generation of musicians.

A search committee representing both UMass and the SSO was formed to screen candidates for a joint position. The committee found its uebermensch in Mark Russell Smith, a Juilliard- and Curtis Institute-trained native of Phoenix who, at thirty-five, is comfortable calling himself "maestro" but other-oriented enough to want to teach. Having revived audience loyalty for both the Phoenix and Cheyenne symphonies, Smith also had a track record of establishing youth orchestras wherever he goes.

So, it was agreed, the maestro would add Western Massachusetts to his already somewhat dizzying itinerary preparing and conducting concerts performed in Springfield and Amherst several times a year, and sometimes, as schedules and programs permit, joining the forces of the two orchestras in a single program.

It is an unusual personality who can crisscross time zones week after week, leading half a dozen different orchestras, all the while researching repertoires that will appeal to paying audiences, challenge veteran players, and be accessible to students. It is also an unusual energy level, but in Smith, that energy is immediately manifest. He has the verve of someone perpetually on his third cup of coffee. Never stumbling over a pebble of self-doubt, he knows exactly what he wants and he isn't going to waste fleeting moments being overly pleasant to get it.

"Keep it light, even in forte, or we get the wrong sound," he exhorts his players this March afternoon. "Strings are too loud, keep it light, light, light!" When he steps down from his little platform to chide the winds, there is a curl of sarcasm: "I would like the woodwinds to take dictation on the dynamics. Is there some vague kind of crescendo idea here?" But warm and fuzzy, the maestro says, are not in his job description.

"They're a little scared of me, and that's good," says Smith, who listens to every student in private sessions in the days before a concert sessions he believes they dread as "ten minutes of hell with Maestro Smith." It's good, he says, "because if you're a professional musician and you come to a rehearsal unprepared, you're not going to keep a job."

F COURSE, NOT EVERY student symphonist is bound for Carnegie Hall. While the number of performance and music education majors is at an all-time high of 207, there are still plenty of premed, computer science, and other nonmusic majors who are gifted musicians and committed members of the symphony. But even those whose instrument cases will gather dust after they leave UMass will benefit from an encounter with punctuality, preparedness, and high standards a la Maestro Smith.
By all accounts, Smith has worked wonders in both Springfield and Amherst. (Though several faculty refrain from crediting the campus symphony's resurgence entirely to the maestro's razzle-dazzle; the momentum, they say, was building before he came.) At the SSO, says Lynn Klock, "morale is enormously better, and that alone makes musicians play better." Better playing and audience-friendly innovations such as the "Classical Conversations" Smith delivers before each concert have produced a sizable boost in ticket sales. At UMass, the chance to practice with a guest conductor and even to play with the SSO has many more students clamoring for a seat in the orchestra. Says Cohen, "That we can have Mark here working with the kids and providing professional opportunities allows them to reach a level they'd never have reached before." In December, for example, students joined faculty and others of the city symphony in the ambitious and unwieldy Bruckner's Fourth at Springfield Symphony Hall.

Though you'd think the idea of two orchestras sharing a conductor and resources would be pure win-win, there are still kinks to straighten out. There are audience members who feel that the students' presence dilutes the quality of SSO performances. There are professionals who resent students sitting in seats that union musicians could fill. And there is some disappointment that the Fine Arts Center does not extend more invitations to the SSO which, like most orchestras, is always on the lookout for opportunities to travel.
Smith, for his part, is convinced that the collaborations he foments are good for both students and long-time players.

"For professionals, there can be the tendency to become jaded and old-hat," he said. "Kids bring this awe. Of course they also bring mistakes. These kids are not the Boston Symphony. But they also harken the older ones back to their early excitement of performing." They may harken audience members, as well, to the joys of good music, passionately played.


 

TO FULLY APPRECIATE CONDUCTOR MARK RUSSELL
SMITH'S contribution to the UMass Symphony, one must look back some years, to when UMass barely had enough players to mount a symphonic program. Though today's hearty membership of eighty players makes it hard to believe, in 1981the UMass Symphony had slender enough resources in particular, enough difficulty in amassing sufficient "density of strings" that it was reconfigured as the Five College Orchestra, with a scant forty players, to ensure enough musicians for a concert or two a year.

In the 1980s, the music faculty began to grow in numbers as well as in depth and breadth. Not only did such major figures as Max Roche and Yusef Lateef arrive on the scene, but such innovations as the Jazz in July outdoor concerts were added under Fred Tillis's broadening umbrella of new Fine Arts Center programs. In classical music, UMass faculty became a stronger presence on the Springfield stage. Over the years, a number of principal chairs in the Springfield Symphony have been held by such faculty as clarinetist Michael Sussman, horn player Laura Klock and saxophonist Lynn Klock, pianist Nadine Shank, bass player Salvatore Macchia, and oboist Fred Cohen.

As Lynn Klock notes, this level of talent was available to a small city orchestra like Springfield's only because the musicians also held faculty appointments: "None of us could afford only to play in the SSO," he says. The liaison obviously benefits the faculty as well, offering a larger venue for performance and a metropolitan stage on which to debut original and commissioned work. (Macchia's "Chimera," for example, was commissioned and premiered for the SSO's fiftieth anniversary season in 1993-94.) And, in 1996 a trustee of the Boston Symphony, politician and humanities advocate William Bulger, became president of the UMass system, indirectly but powerfully influencing the climate for the arts on campus. In a matter of years, the deck had been reshuffled, says UMass music chair Ernest May, and the department was in a position to "go out and recruit students at the level the faculty deserved to teach."

Then, in a happy moment of synchronicity, the Five College Orchestra conductor left just as the SSO announced that it would be looking for a new music director. The two orchestras put their hopes, dreams, and needs on the table, and embarked on a joint search. They were stunned by a deluge of more than 200 applicants. As a search committee member, Fred Cohen traveled the country observing the candidates with their current ensembles. In Cheyenne, where Smith lived on a ranch and led a small but mighty city orchestra, Cohen quickly learned that "Mark was beloved." Three finalists conducted concerts at UMass, with audience members invited to register their opinions in a post-concert poll. Though Smith's uncommon youth and, even more, his peripatetic schedule, caused a few to hesitate his actual home, which he tries to get to once in a while, is in Minneapolis with his wife, Ellen, and two sons he was the virtually unanimous choice.