First candidate for symphony job to take podium Conductor: Stephen Smith, assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, is one of four hopefuls seeking the Annapolis Symphony conductor's post.

October 02, 1997|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Any opening night is dramatic, but adding to the excitement at Maryland Hall this weekend will be the appearance of the first of four guest conductors vying to succeed Gisele Ben-Dor as principal conductor of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Stephen Smith, the 37-year-old assistant conductor of the world-class Cleveland Orchestra, opens this season's conductor's derby directing Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3, the second Horn Concerto of Richard Strauss and the hair-raising Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich.

His soloist in the Strauss will be the American horn virtuoso Eric Ruske, whose brilliant traversal of the four Mozart concertos for Telarc has garnered superlatives from critics around the world.

Smith, a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where he majored in violin, spent time as concertmaster of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Symphony before turning his attention to composition and conducting. His "Shake, Rattle, Roar," an interactive program for young audiences and orchestra, was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra and has been performed by major orchestras across the country.

But it was for his acumen on the podium that Smith's resume stood out among the 300 applications that flooded the ASO's Maryland Hall office last season.

After turning to the baton, Smith quickly won appointments to the San Juan Symphony of Durango, Colo., then made even more of a name for himself by being appointed assistant conductor of the Kansas City Symphony.

An orchestra on the East Coast would be just the ticket now that his affiliations with those two orchestras are coming to a close. Clearly, the ASO post intrigues him.

"Annapolis has a much larger budget than the orchestra in Colorado," he says. "There's also more of a population base here and a great potential pool of players. The recordings I've heard of the orchestra have been terrific. Yes, coming here as music director would certainly be a step up."

Like most young maestros, Smith refuses to limit himself to any single repertoire.

"I tend to shy away from English music," he says. "But I love almost anything French, Beethoven, the late 19th-century romantics, Bartok and American music, especially Charles Ives. It's worth doing his whole Second Symphony just to get to that last chord."

Smith speaks enthusiastically about his programming ideas.

"I like to connect contemporary music with earlier styles," he says. "And it's important to make audiences aware of those connections. It's especially helpful to people who might be skeptical about a new work."

He also is fascinated by the fusion of music and drama found in incidental music for the theater. Don't be startled to see extended portions of Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream," Beethoven's "Egmont" or Sibelius' "Tempest" on future ASO programs if he wins the job.

Smith has strong feelings about the need for hands-on conductors.

"You can't just show up every three months," he says. "Education and community outreach are essentials. I like to be very involved in the community wherever I am."

He has selected this weekend's program himself, from the taut, heroic Beethoven overture to the autumnal Strauss concerto to the devastating Shostakovich symphony.

"The Fifth has this incredible dual identity," he says. "Shostakovich adopted a politically correct persona to survive, but underneath there is that sense of what it was really like to be a Soviet citizen and have to deal with that regime. It's incredible."

Smith and the ASO take the Maryland Hall stage at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday.

Information: 410-263-0907.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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