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


  1. […] Classical music: UW and WYSO conductor James Smith is “Musician of … […]

    Pingback by Michale daughtery | Etiquefacere — March 3, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  2. An excellent choice!!

    Comment by Bridget Fraser — January 3, 2011 @ 8:08 am

  3. I had such an enjoyable time playing in WYSO as a highschooler!!! I grew up in a small town without orchestra (I played trombone) and this was the start of a lifelong enjoyment and appreciation for symphonic music in particular and classical music in general, even though I don’t continue to play. I was introduced to challenging, beautiful music as a part of WYSO, and really grasped only in hindsight what a privilege it had been to work with him, “getting music out of us that we didn’t think we had in us.” (love that quote you commented to another person earlier. So true!) Thanks for recognizing him, to add my own 2 cents worth to your thread. Nice blog, by the way!

    Comment by Karla — January 1, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

    • Hi Karla,
      Thanks for reading and then replying out of your own personal experience.
      I’m glad you share my high esteem for Jim.
      And thank you for your kind words about the blog.
      I hope you find more that you like on it.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 1, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

  4. I played horn under Mr. Smith’s baton for 2 years of my masters at UW. He is a very encouraging and thoughtful conductor who also has a sense of humor. I think my favorite was playing in the pit for operas. He always made it fun and meaningful. I teach horn and have some high school students who play in the WYSO. They love playing for him and he keeps them motivated with challenging music. Thank you for honoring him!

    Comment by Sarah — January 1, 2011 @ 12:57 am

    • Hi Sarah,
      Thank you for reading and for offering your comment based on personal experience. It validates my own suspicions and thoughts, and makes me sorry I never played under Jim or studied with him.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 1, 2011 @ 9:02 am

  5. Mr. Smith is one of the most delightful, knowledgeable and talented conductors I have played under. It has a been a rewarding challenge to play flute in his orchestras for the past four years. Thank you for recognizing him.

    Comment by Kristine — December 31, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

    • Hi Kristine,
      Thanks for reading and commenting from your personal experience.
      I think it would be great to play under his baton.
      Best for 2011,

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 31, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

  6. Jake: Today (12-31-2010) on “Morning Edition,” NPR aired a story on “indie classical” music. This was my first exposure to the term and the concept. I see from the related NPR blog that there is controversy about whether or not this music is of a caliber to be considered “classical.” As would be appropriate to your blog, please give us some insight into this “genre” in general, or into it’s prevalence in Madison. Thanks! — Fred

    Comment by Fred Meyer — December 31, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    • Hi Fred,
      How great to know that an old college friend is reading my blog!
      You ask a very good question, and one that is very controversial and divisive at the time.
      I also heard the NPR story and expect to link to it this week and to treat the question in a regular posting.
      But in the past I have also dealt with the same issue at various times and expect to do so again.
      My own point of view is that the term “classical” is just a convenient label to categorize and classify music, much like pop, country, rock, R and B, whatever.
      The idea of a hybrid category, whether you call it crossover or Indie classical, is in large part an attempt to widen the audience for classical and make it seem more populist and less esoteric or elitist.
      But I think the music speaks just fine for itself. It serves a different purpose, is deeper and rewards you time after time.
      What we really need is not new labels, but more music education of children and young people, and more exposure to classical music for adults. And that isn’t easy to achieve in tight economic times.
      I think more highly of the idea of taking classical music to untraditional venues including coffee houses and bars, and getting rid of the dress codes and expensive tickets.
      The Metropolitan Opera’s live high-def broadcasts into movie theaters have been phenomenally successful, and the LA Philharmonic starts the same thing this month.
      That strikes me as a better path to success for so-called classical music rather than trying to redefine it.
      But in the end, any discussion or new approach is likely to help.
      What do you think of the issue and my reply?
      I look forward to reading your thoughts.
      Happy New Year!

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 1, 2011 @ 9:14 am

  7. Jake:

    Today (12-31-2010), WFMT aired the “Red Cape Tango” from the “Metropolis Symphony” by Michael Daugherty. I loved it! My question (if appropriate to your blog) is: Please provide some context for this work, to help me appreciate it.

    Best Wishes for a Newly Musical Year!

    — Fred

    Comment by Fred Meyer — December 31, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    • Hi Fred,
      I can’t really say I know much about the work or the composer.
      But I checked into both.
      If you like the work, I suggest you Google Michael Daughtery in Wikipedia (he has a pretty long and informative entry) and then go to YouTube and type in Red Cape Tango and listen to it and look at some of the notes and comments.
      Hope that helps.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 1, 2011 @ 9:18 am

  8. My context for remarks about Maestro James Smith is the following. My personal conducting life has spanned 35 years…25 of those as a part of my profession. My work has included activities around the world, including opera in Rome, Italy and symphonic work in New York City and Carnegie Hall. I’ve studied with most of the leading conducting mentors of an era.

    James Smith is a rare and profound artist and an educator of the highest order. Your recognition of his incredible contributions to music and artists of all ages is most appropriate and to be celebrated.

    Thank you for highlighting and recognizing the outstanding contributions of this extraordinary man and artist.

    Kevin McMahon
    music director and conductor, Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra

    Comment by Kevin McMahon — December 31, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    • Hi Kevin,
      Thanks you for reading and replying.
      And especially thank you for your detailed personal story and testimony that goes deeper than I ever could into Jim Smith’s qualifications for the honor.
      I am pleased that you are pleased.
      Jim gets music out of students, including big and difficult symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner, that I don’t even think they thought they had in them.
      He is that inspiring and that talented.
      So thanks again for seconding my choice.

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 31, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  9. I think Mr. Smith was conducting the only UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra concert I attended a year or so ago. They did the Brahms’ Violin Concerto in the first half. I think the female soloist was UW’s top violin teacher. She played well, but I thought the orchestra was better. After intermission, they did Shostakovitch’s 10th Symphony which I’d never played nor heard. The French horn section was absolutely astonishing, just about raising the roof. This orchestra is truly a world-class ensemble. And the conductor clearly got the best from them.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — December 31, 2010 @ 11:03 am

  10. James Smith is an excellent choice for this honor. My daughters were both in WYSO. My older daughter was lucky enough to have him for conductor. He is a very good teacher, is very gentle and polite, and funny too, I hear. Wisconsin is fortunate to have him on the faculty.

    And I agree that there should be more awards like this.

    Comment by Genie — December 31, 2010 @ 12:36 am

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