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Two conductors in one

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Mark Russell Smith
Mark Russell Smith has the unique position of being the artistic director of orchestral studies at the University of Minnesota and director of new music projects with the SPCO.
Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

Mark Russell Smith is two conductors in one man. He's the artistic director of orchestral studies at the U, and director of new music projects with the SPCO.

"In my experience, it's unique," Smith said. "That's what was so attractive about the position for me. You get to work with a world-class orchestra like the SPCO, and you get to teach."

SPCO strings
Violist Sabina Thatcher and violinists Dale Barltrop and Daria T. Adams of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Photo by Sarah Rubenstein

Since 1999, Smith has been the music director of the Richmond Symphony. His commitments to the Virginia orchestra have kept him from spending more time in his new jobs in the Twin Cities. 

But that will change next season, when he conducts only four concert programs in Richmond before concluding his tenure there.

As much as he's enjoyed his time with the Richmond Symphony, Smith says his shared conductor position allows him to branch out and do things he wasn't able to do there, namely exploring contemporary music and teaching.

"As a professional conductor, you rarely have an opportunity to teach and to really make a difference in young musicians' lives," Smith said. "You're too busy. And that's one of those things you look back on later and say, 'Wow, what a shame that I wasn't able to pass on -- as my teachers passed on to me -- this tremendous legacy that I'm so fortunate to have inherited.'"

"As a young conductor, I'm very grateful to be in this situation."

Jerry Luckhardt, the interim director of the University of Minnesota School of Music, says that Smith is passionate about his work and cares about students. He's noticed that Smith has already made a difference since arriving on campus last fall.

"Every rehearsal seems to be kind of an event now," Luckhardt said. "Students are talking about rehearsals between rehearsals. They're talking about the next rehearsal as if they're going to the studio for their next lesson. It's very satisfying to see the students engaged at that level."

Luckhardt says Mark Russell Smith's position is part of an ongoing collaboration between the U of M and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra that began with the Elliott Carter festival two years ago. Similar events are in the works.

As the SPCO's director of new music projects, Smith helps program the group's contemporary concerts. He's conducted several performances with the university symphony orchestra, but he is leading his first contemporary music concerts with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra this week.

However, John Mangum, the SPCO's vice president for artistic planning, says Smith's role won't be limited to new music.

Jerry Luckhardt
Jerry Luckhardt is the interim director of the University of Minnesota School of Music.
Photo by Greg Helgeson

"The SPCO doesn't have a resident conductor, so this is an interesting way for us to have somebody who is part of our artistic team," said Mangum. "He's someone who can focus on leading the contemporary concerts, and do other interesting work with the orchestra as it arises."

That other work has included leading the St.  Paul Chamber Orchestra's community concerts last December.

Although Smith only started the shared conducting position last fall, he's lived in the Twin Cities for several years and commuted to his job in Richmond Symphony for nearly a decade. His wife is a horn player with the Minnesota Orchestra, and they are raising their two sons, age 11 and 13, here. 

Smith says that at the age of 45, he's grateful to have created an interesting conducting career out of so many different pieces.

"It's not too much of one thing, which is great," Smith said. "It's of a very, very high quality, and it's in a place where it's appreciated. Those are things that don't always happen, so as a young conductor I'm very grateful to be in that situation."

Mark Russell Smith has just added another piece to his career. Starting in the fall, he'll also be directing the Quad City Symphony Orchestra in Davenport, Iowa.

Smith conducts the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's "engine408" new music concert Saturday night at the SPCO Center in downtown St. Paul.