Conductor leads University in duet with pro musicians

A new, ‘enthusiastic’ director will lead two orchestras this coming fall.

Diane White

The School of Music and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will share a new conductor come this fall.

Mark Russell Smith said his role may be considered unusual since it formalizes a relationship between the two institutions. However, he said they already mesh since many SPCO members teach at the University.

“We’ll see how a professional orchestra can impact a University Ö having me as the go-between,” Smith said.

University Symphony Orchestra member and oboe performance senior Jess Wenstrom said she is excited to finally have an enthusiastic director, something she said the group lacked in the past.

For the past two years, interim conductors filled the position while the University searched for a permanent replacement.

“The general consensus of the orchestra was that (Smith) was the best man for the job,” she said, after describing the process of rehearsing with each of the three finalists.

She said Smith’s musical expression, respect for students and general demeanor impressed her.

As the artistic director of orchestral studies, Smith will conduct the University Symphony Orchestra in practices and performances, teach the fundamentals of orchestra playing and work with graduate students in a developing doctoral program. 

Smith said he is looking forward to sharing his experience with University students.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a rich musical life. Ö I’ve had great mentors as a student,” he said. “I have a lot to offer from my experience.”

Kelly Belich, communications manager for the SPCO, said Smith will conduct the orchestra six weeks each season. Typically, artistic directors conduct for only three weeks and are tied into three-year contracts.

She said the bulk of Smith’s work will be with the engine408 series, which is focused on contemporary music.

Laura Perkett, oboe and vocal performance senior and University orchestra member, said Smith’s position enables the orchestra to build a better relationship with the SPCO.

Smith’s personable nature, engagement with the music and attention to detail won her over.

“I can get a good sense of a conductor by watching him on the podium,” Perkett said. “Smith has great potential to build a rapport with us.”

For the first two years at the University, Smith will maintain his current post as music director of the Richmond Symphony in Virginia. His contract lasts until 2009, and his responsibilities will dissipate after this year.

“Next year is the crazy year,” he said, describing the juggling and travel it will take to maintain his positions.

Though Smith will have responsibilities at both organizations, the position was set up in a way for Smith to succeed, said Craig Kirchhoff, chair of the committee that chose him.

He also said such a qualified person might not have been otherwise interested in the position, had it not been as complexly arranged as it is.

Smith, 44, said he’s a young conductor in the professional world. Doors kept opening for him early on in his career.

He did his graduate work in cello performance at Juilliard and studied conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music.

His success in the professional world of music may have evolved from the musicality within his own family.

“My mother taught elementary education Ö my father was a choral conductor,” Smith said. “It’s the family trade.”

Smith’s sons, 10 and 12, both play the violin and the eldest plays tuba as well. Though they like playing, they’re not like protégés, Smith said, jokingly adding their family has many interests aside from music, like involvement with church and sports.

“I love the Minnesota Twins,” Smith said, describing his summer habit of studying scores while watching baseball.

Whenever possible, Smith attends his wife’s concerts. She is a horn player with the Minnesota Orchestra, a group Smith often guest-conducts, he said.

“It’s weird having your wife in the orchestra,” Smith said with a laugh. “It gets a little dicey.”