Smith conducts ASO with judicious hand Clevelander 1st contestant in Conductor's Derby

October 09, 1997|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Being the opening act is never easy, but it didn't seem to bother Steven Smith, the 37-year-old assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra who was in town last weekend to direct the Annapolis Symphony as the first contestant in this year's Conductor's Derby season.

With Beethoven's third "Leonore" overture, the second French horn concerto of Richard Strauss, and the gut-wrenching "Fifth Symphony" of Dmitri Shostakovich on the bill of fare, there was nothing slack or unambitious about the program Smith crafted to show us what he could do.

His soloist in the Strauss was Eric Ruske, the gifted American hornist who vanquished the fearsome difficulties of this complex work with brio and dispatch. Ruske is remarkably accurate, mixes registers with the greatest of ease, and maintains a warm, golden tone even as he pumps up the volume. Even first-class horn players can sound uncomfortably brassy when they get loud (Barry Tuckwell is one). Ruske is one of the very few who doesn't. It was a pleasure to hear him.

Can the same be said of Steven Smith? I'd say so. He's no glamour boy, that's for sure. He is, however, a serious musician through and through.

On the podium he's very much in control; both of the orchestra and of himself. The stickwork is clear, strictly utilitarian and delivered with minimum fuss and fanfare. He knows what he wants, he gets what he wants and, most of the time, his desires are in line with the composer's wishes.

He won't dazzle you, but he carries a strong sense of artistic purpose and that made for some satisfying music Saturday evening.

Smith scared me at the outset with a bland "Leonore" that never left the ground, though it was clean and well-played. (Let's acknowledge that this overture is no sweet little bonbon. "Leonore" is as difficult to bring off as anything else on the program.)

Better things would come out of the concerto. As always in Strauss, the scoring is tremendously dense, with all manner of complex things going on beneath the soloist. All of them could be heard, which is no small achievement in Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

Accompaniments were sensitively played, and at no time did the hyperactive undercurrents distract from Ruske's clinic on how to play Strauss on the French horn.

But it was the Shostakovich "Fifth" that had everyone shaking their heads in wonder. What incredible music this is -- so animated and so full of irony as the composer was able to give his Stalinist taskmasters the music they wanted while at the same time screaming blue murder at the grotesque injustice of it all.

Never one to tip his hand too soon, Smith held things in check, building carefully -- maybe a bit too carefully sometimes -- to each overwhelming climax. He didn't pull punches in Shostakovich's angrier moments. The piano and low brass were downright menacing in the second theme of the first movement, and Smith downplayed the satirical elements in the second movement in favor of an unremittingly nasty approach. I liked it.

While Smith is in no rush to pull out the stops, he knows what to do when it's time to let go. The massive climaxes in the third and fourth movements were shattering and left the audience impressed with this talented visitor.

Technically, he had prepared the orchestra well. True, the fiddles lost focus now and again, and the cellos could have used a shot of testosterone. But the players clearly played their hearts out and that's what counts.

There may be more pizazz on display from Steven Smith's rivals this season, but if the ASO leadership concludes that a serious, judicious and scrupulously musical presence on the podium is what it wants, this guy certainly could fit the bill.

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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