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CityMusic and Mozart cap a fall of milestones
By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer December 06, 2009

The call was one she'd always wanted, but the timing couldn't have been much worse.

Violist Jessica Oudin was in the middle of a performance with CityMusic Cleveland in mid-October when she received a call, her first, from the Cleveland Orchestra. Could she accompany them later that month on their 2009 European tour?

Oudin had to accept. She'd spent her whole life preparing for just such an opportunity.

Only there were two big problems: She and violinist Nathan Olson were set to perform Mozart's "Sinfonia Concertante" with their beloved CityMusic and guest conductor Joel Smirnoff in December, and before that, she was getting married Nov. 21.

"I had a lot of things to do in those days, all wedding-related," Oudin recalled. "I initially thought I'd have to decline. Anybody who knows me knows that throwing things together last-minute really isn't my style."

But throw things together she did. Entrusting the wedding plans to her parents, Oudin went off to Europe for the experience of a lifetime with the orchestra and returned to her childhood home in Houston for a wedding finer than she'd imagined. Her fiance even managed to meet up with her in Vienna, Austria.

"It was just a few days, but it was wonderful," Oudin said. "We thought of it as our pre-wedding honeymoon. There were a lot of sleepless nights, but it was well worth it."

Much of the sleeplessness stemmed not from Oudin's imminent nuptials but rather from her upcoming gig with CityMusic. Mozart's brilliant concerto for violin and viola, completed while the composer himself was touring Europe, was right around the corner, waiting for her on a program including Mozart's Divertimento, K. 136, and "Exsultate Jubilate," with soprano Chabrelle Williams.

Luckily, Olson, a colleague and friend of Oudin's who'd studied with her at the Cleveland Institute of Music, also had been invited on the tour, with greater advance notice. That meant the two could practice abroad whenever they weren't rehearsing or performing with the orchestra.

"We were backstage at the Musikverein [in Vienna], matching our bowings," said Olson, who also happens to be performing Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 today with the Canton Symphony Orchestra. "It cut down on our sightseeing time, but we didn't really have a choice."

Smirnoff landed on CityMusic's next program in the exact opposite manner. Where Oudin and Olson were obliged to operate in overdrive, Smirnoff's local debut as a conductor had been in the making for decades.

A chamber musician first and foremost, Smirnoff was a member of the celebrated Juilliard String Quartet from 1986 until last summer, when he left the ensemble to replace David Cerone as president of the Cleveland Institute of Music. He also spent many years as chairman of the violin department of the Juilliard School of Music.

Throughout his long career, though, Smirnoff occasionally found himself on the conductor's podium, first as a student in Chicago, for "The Nutcracker," and later at Boston's Tanglewood Festival, at the request of conductor Seiji Ozawa.

"All of a sudden, I was onstage with this wonderful string section, and from there, it just kept growing and growing," Smirnoff said, noting studies with Ozawa and renowned instructor Gustav Meier. "When I'm invited to do it, I do it. That's my philosophy."

Today, Smirnoff's conducting resume includes appearances with Minnesota's St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Philharmonic, polished ensembles each where he aims to emulate George Szell and Fritz Reiner, conductors who he said "didn't show emotion apparently and yet were more emotional than those who flailed about."

s Smirnoff prepares to perform Mozart with CityMusic, he's relying on his background in chamber music to inform a program he said depends on the ability of players to listen to each other. "Sinfonia," for instance, demands soloists who can "swoop around like birds."

That, Oudin and Olson should be able to do. Between the string quartets they played together in college to their shared years in CityMusic and this unusually turbulent autumn, the two artists could hardly be closer.

"It certainly helps to have this familiarity," Olson said. "We know each other's little quirks."