The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW and WYSO conductor James Smith is “Musician of the Year” for 2010

December 31, 2010

A reminder: Tonight at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television, PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center” will feature a special live broadcast of the New Year’s Eve  all-Tchaikovsky program by the New York Philharmonic under music director Alan Gilbert with piano superstar Lang Lang in the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor. The concert itself is sold-out, so TV is the best seat, the only seat, in the house at Avery Fisher Hall.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s choice for 2010’s Musician of the Year is James Smith (below).

Smith is a man of many talents and a very busy but reportedly amiable man. He also seems to have universal tastes and talents, programming and performing repertoire form the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, modern and contemporary periods.

Chances are that if you know him at all, you know him from several of his many positions or duties.

He teaches conducting at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he is the Director of Orchestras. So you might have heard him with the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra – both of which perform so well, their concerts would get the audiences they deserve if more of them were scheduled on Friday or Saturday nights. (Below is the UW Chamber Orchestra under Smith performing the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth this past fall.)

He also does the University Opera working with the student instrumentalists and singers.

Finally, he is the Music Director of WYSO, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and conducts their top group, the Youth Orchestra.

I have heard him conduct WYSO in works you might have thought beyond the middle and high school students (below). The results are terrific and the students, middle and high school students, clearly love him as much as the UW undergraduate and graduate students, major and non-majors, love him.

And he is a sport for all kinds of musical events. This fall he also soloed as clarinetist with the UW Concert Band.

Here is his impressive official resume from the UW Faculty/Staff guide:

James Smith conducts the University Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra while continuing in his position as Music Director of the University Opera.

Smith began his career as a clarinetist. After graduation from Southern Methodist University, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study clarinet in London, England, and subsequently received a graduate degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

He has performed with the Empire Sinfonietta in New York City, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Miami Philharmonic. While in New York, Smith (below, in a photo by Jack Burns) appeared as soloist with the Empire Sinfonietta performing Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with Aaron Copland conducting.

An interest in conducting began while teaching at the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he co-founded a faculty-student chamber orchestra, the Fredonia Chamber Players, and began appearing as a conductor with the university’s bands and orchestra.

From New York, he moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to conduct the Wind Ensemble and the Symphonic Band. Two years later, Smith was invited by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras to become their Music Director, a position he continues to enjoy.

Guest conducting and the rare sighting as a clarinetist compete for Smith’s free time, time which is better spent cooking, reading and biking.

Here is Smith conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Debussy’s “La Mer” last fall in Mills Hall.

I hope you agree that Smith and his work with students deserve a higher profile and deep appreciation. If we ever needed recognition and help in music education, it is right now in a bad economy and with budget cuts in school art programs and less media coverage for all the arts.

Perhaps this small recognition by The Ear will help.

Leave your good wishes, recollections of hearing or working with Smith or other thoughts in the Comment section.

You can also send him an email at

Let me know what you think of the choice.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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