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CityMusic Cleveland: Joel Smirnoff makes his Ohio conducting debut (five times) this week - Daniel Hathaway

Now in his second year as president of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and having stepped down as first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, Joel Smirnoff finds himself with a little more time to indulge one of his passions -- conducting. He makes his Ohio debut in front of CityMusic Cleveland in five different locations this week in all-Mozart programs with violinist Nathan Olson, violist Jessica Oudin and soprano Chabrelle Williams. Although concertmasters in orchestras do more conducting than most audiences realize -- probably a holdover from the early years of the orchestra when the first chair violinist -- still called the 'Leader' in England -- presided over the proceedings with bow and body language, the act of putting down the bow and taking up the baton definitely marks a transition. For Joel Smirnoff, the Boston Symphony's former music director Seiji Ozawa was the catalyst. "Of course I had conducted before, in high school; I had assisted a little bit with the 'Nutcracker' for many years in Chicago when I was concertmaster as a freelancer in my 20's. Then I was in the Boston Symphony from 1980 to 1986, and one of my Saturday afternoon gigs was to lead the junior ensemble at the Longy School in Cambridge for about three years". Things began moving quickly at Tanglewood in 1986. Smirnoff was in the Juilliard Quartet by that time, but still served on the faculty of the Berkshire Music Festival. "Seiji was very ambitious that year. The first orchestral concert was going to be the three Berg orchestral pieces and Beethoven's Fifth. And of course you're dealing with a brand new orchestra, a bunch of people who are just coming together. They're the best students in the country, but the Berg is in kind of a rarefied style that you don't expect students to know much about. So Ozawa conscripted me to prepare the strings for him. Well, 'Wozzcek', 'Rite of Spring' and 'Miraculous Mandarin' were my favorite pieces when I was about thirteen years old -- I was a very strange little boy -- so I thought, well this will be fun. So there I found myself leading a string sectional on the stage of the Shed at Tanglewood. It came together very quickly, and I realized that a lot of my training had prepared me for the possibility of conducting." Ozawa was delighted with Smirnoff's work and invited him to conduct some of the Beethoven Fifth with the Tanglewood Orchestra as well. "So I started the process, which is not a short one. You learn by your mistakes, and you can't learn conducting in a practice room -- there's no substitute for flying time". Smirnoff formally studied conducting with Gustav Meier and other conducting gurus, but Ozawa was always in his mind. "Physically he was able to express anything he wanted. He was a great teacher". Ozawa gave him a Mozart Symphony to conduct at Tanglewood, saw a tape of the performance and invited Smirnoff to come up to Boston: "I have a couple of things to tell you." Eventually, after sessions with the New World Symphony and the Juilliard Orchestra (where he received accolades from Kurt Mazur for his preparation of 'Till Eulenspiegel'), Joel Smirnoff obviously had earned his wings, appearing in the BSO's Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert in 1998, conducting Beethoven's 'Leonora Overture No. 3', sharing the stage with Ozawa (Bernstein's 'Songfest') and Robert Spano (Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'). Other engagements followed with the Banff Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra the Chicago Philharmonic, and Pro Arte in Boston. What are the dynamics like when a former member of the ensemble takes to the podium? "It's tough, actually, although the Boston Symphony had a tradition of using the concertmaster as assistant conductor -- probably to save money. Sometimes you're seen as someone whose ambition is outweighing their talents, but because there are more violins in an orchestra than anything else, there's the sense that when a member of the string section gets up and conducts, they may be able to gather the forces. If players want to play for you, if you can make them feel enthusiastic about the music, about the composer, about what they're doing, then you're a great conductor!" CityMusic's program is not being billed as a Christmas concert, but to Joel Smirnoff, the all-Mozart concert is evocative of that holiday. "The Sinfonia Concertante was already programmed and the soloists invited, so I had to decide what to put with it. I'm a Christmas sap, so I proposed 'Exsultate, Jubilate' with its festive 'Alleluia', one of his biggest hits. Then, thinking about Christmas, you want something like the bells at the beginning of Mahler Four to celebrate the days of horse drawn sleds and elegance -- Christmas in Vienna. So I chose the Divertimento as the middle piece. Maybe there'll be some snow". 'Exsultate Jubilate' soloist Chabrelle Williams graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory last year. The two other soloists have strong ties to the Cleveland Institute of Music, which makes its president proud. "I love CIM -- it's a great place to be. We have so much talent at the moment in the school. I'm very hopeful for classical music, and the future for young artists in this area is very positive. Cleveland is not a large city, but it has a very big culture which is extraordinary considering its size. We will succeed, I really believe that. The community that surrounds the arts in Cleveland is extremely vital and extremely interested. People have welcomed my wife and I so warmly." Joel Smirnoff's wife happens to be the well-known violinist Joan Kwuon. Expect Joel the conductor to have a special insight into the 'Sinfonia Concertante' this week. "I actually got to play solo viola on the piece with my wife earlier this fall with the Amarillo Symphony. Joan had played it many times with finer violists than I, so I was just kind of hanging in there, but it was great fun!" Great fun with CityMusic Cleveland begins on Wednesday at Fairmount Presbyterian in Cleveland Heights, followed by performances through Sunday afternoon in Willoughby (Willoughby Methodist), Cleveland (St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Stanislaus Churches) and Elyria (Elyria Methodist). Even more fun: it's all free.