Thursday, March 4, 2010

Symphony taps Steven Smith

Steven Smith has been named the fifth music director of the Richmond Symphony.

Currently music director of the Santa Fe (NM) Symphony and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony and a conductor at the Brevard Music Festival in North Carolina, Smith is also a violinist who served as concertmaster of the Grand Rapids (MI) Symphony and a composer whose works have been performed extensively.

He succeeds Mark Russell Smith (no relation), who concluded a 10-year tenure as the Richmond Symphony’s music director at the end of last season.

"We have found the right music director at the right time," states Joe Murillo, president of the symphony board. "In addition to being an accomplished musician, conductor and composer, Steven is a proven leader and innovator. He has a strong track recording of combining music with community service through education, outreach and building new audiences."

"Steven stood out as having the experience, depth of musicality, chemistry and integrity we were seeking," says David Fisk, the symphony’s executive director and a member of the search committee. Sonya Chung, a violinist in the orchestra and chair of its artistic advisory committee, describes Smith as being "passionate about music and [caring] deeply about arts education and its relevance in today’s culture."

"He has a clear vision of the music, a fine ability to communicate with musicians and a genial personality," says Donald Rosenberg, music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, who has appraised the conductor’s work since the 1990s, when Smith served as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and music director of its youth orchestra.

"The elements that make orchestral music vital to a community are particularly abundant in Richmond: talented and enthusiastic musicians, a supportive and expanding audience, and a welcoming home at CenterStage," the conductor states. "This exciting potential is what attracts me to the Richmond Symphony and the city."

Smith assumes his new Richmond post on April 20, and makes his formal debut as music director in a gala concert with violinist Gil Shaham on April 24 at CenterStage's Carpenter Theatre. The conductor's initial contract with the symphony runs for three seasons, Fisk says.

Smith's appointment follows a two-year process in which a selection committee of orchestra musicians, board members and public representatives culled nine finalists from more than 240 applicants. The finalists appeared in audition concerts; two who had auditioned before the reopening of the Carpenter Theatre – Smith and Marc Taddei – were invited back this season to conduct in the renovated hall.

Last weekend Smith led a pair of concerts highlighted by a dynamic and nuanced reading of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which won ovations from an audience that does not always greet post-romantic scores so enthusiastically. The Shostakovich was paired with Beethoven’s "Emperor" Concerto; in his Masterworks audition concerts last season, Smith programmed Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" alongside Schubert’s Ninth Symphony.

"[A] basic principle of programming of mine [is] to include music of differing eras, and to make connections between those works," the conductor said last season. "I try to find paths of entry into the music by way of other disciplines, particularly the visual arts, architecture and literature. The nature of music is abstract and ephemeral. It exists only in the air when we as performers bring to life the blueprint left to us on the page by the composer. The better we can connect the issues and aesthetics found in . . . other art forms to the music we are performing, the greater will be the understanding and appreciation of our audience."

As a composer and conductor of the Cleveland ensemble, which specializes in modern and contemporary music, Smith believes that "we should play today’s music for today’s audiences, and at the same time, connect it to the continuum of music" represented by scores of earlier eras.

Smith, who turns 50 this year, is a native of Toledo, OH. He holds master’s degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has guest-conducted numerous orchestras, including the Detroit and Houston symphonies, and has conducted opera at Brevard and Indiana University and with Lyric Opera Cleveland. His wife, Stacia Lewandowski, is a flutist. They plan to reside in Richmond.