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Orchestras director begins new chapter

April 25, 2007 By Richard Mumford

Photo of James Smith conducting.

James Smith, director of the UW Symphony Orchestra and professor in the School of Music, conducts student musicians during a rehearsal at Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities building.

Photo: Jeff Miller

James Smith, the newly appointed director of orchestras at the School
of Music
, did not begin his musical career with an eye on conducting.

His passion was the clarinet, which he studied in his native Dallas and later in London, Cleveland and New York. But his first university teaching position required taking up the baton, and ever since his life has not been the same.

Following graduation from Southern Methodist University, Smith spent a year in London as a Fulbright fellow. He advanced his clarinet chops under the tutelage of Jack Brymer, principal clarinetist for several of London’s world-class orchestras, and got to observe orchestra rehearsals with renowned conductors through Brymer’s connections.

Smith then enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with the legendary Robert Marcellus, principal clarinetist in the Cleveland Orchestra. George Szell was the orchestra’s music director and John Mack, its principal oboist, coached chamber music at the institute. The institute’s orchestra conductor was James Levine, now the music director of both the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony. Smith says, “All of those experiences in Cleveland were pivotal to deepening my understanding of music performance.”

Smith auditioned for the West Point Academy Band to fulfill his service requirement to Uncle Sam and won the placement. For the next three years he juggled his duties at West Point with opportunities to study and perform in New York. A noted highlight was performing as the soloist in Aaron Copland’s “Concerto for Clarinet, Harp and Strings” with the composer conducting the Empire Sinfonietta.

After performing with orchestras in Dallas and Miami, Smith moved to upstate New York for a teaching position at SUNY-Fredonia. He began conducting the chamber orchestra and later the wind ensemble. From that point onward, the conducting bug’s bite took hold, and Smith’s career goals shifted accordingly.

In 1983, Smith was appointed to the faculty at UW–Madison.

“I was looking for a job that was completely in the area of conducting,” Smith says, “and this position called for me to conduct the wind ensemble and symphonic band and teach instrumental conducting.”

Two years later, Smith was appointed music director of the Wisconsin
Youth Symphony Orchestras
(WYSO). Following the retirement of Karlos Moser in 1998, he added the role of music director of University Opera. “Opera is my great love,” he says.

Smith was asked to be interim director of orchestras two years ago when David Becker took a leave of absence (and subsequently retired). Last winter, he learned he had landed the permanent title following a national search.

Colleagues and students alike praise Smith for his innate musicianship, his thorough preparation of scores and his solid rehearsal technique. William Farlow, director of University Opera, says, “Jim Smith is one of the finest musicians with whom I have had the privilege of working — a wonderful conductor with an unerring musical sense.”

Marvin Rabin, professor emeritus of music at UW-Extension and founder in 1966 of WYSO, says Smith is a model for showing expressiveness with an economy of means and communicating the drama of the music to his players. Though modest and possessed of a low-key manner, Rabin says, Smith always does his homework and has high standards for his ensembles.

Two undergraduate students augment the portrait from the other side of the podium. Derek Powell, a junior violinist whose association with Smith began in WYSO 10 years ago, says the conductor “has always had the ability to inspire new creativity and sensitivity to every piece we play.”

Julia Marion, a junior bassoonist who also first encountered Smith as a member of WYSO, reveals that he enlivens rehearsals through the use of “relevant anecdotes and some occasionally outlandish metaphors that always seem to hit the nail on the head.”

When not engaged in studying, teaching or directing, Smith has a number of nonmusical interests to fall back on, including biking, travel, wine and crossword puzzles. For the moment, he is looking forward to raising the baton, and perhaps the bar, as he begins the next chapter of his career.

“I would like to get the orchestra out into the state to perform for various arts series after a program is prepared here,” he says. Regardless of changes he might propose, however, his motivation appears to remain constant. “I enjoy making music with young performers,” he adds.