Conductor Mark Russell Smith didn’t hesitate for a second when he was approached about leading the Spokane Symphony in “Masterworks 5: Beethoven’s 250th Birthday” on Saturday and Sunday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
For one, it gives him the chance to work with renowned violinist Augustin Hadelich for the first time. Hadelich, who in 2018 was named Musical America’s instrumentalist of the year, has performed with every major orchestra in the U.S. and dozens of orchestras around the world.
He won a Grammy in 2016 for best classical instrumental solo and released recordings of Paganini’s “24 Caprices” in 2018 and the Brahms and Ligeti concertos in April 2019. Smith has seen Hadelich perform before, but the two have never shared the stage. It was during Hadelich’s performances that Smith was, in a rare moment, able to be completely moved by a performance.
“When you’re a professional, going to concerts is a mixed blessing,” he said. “It’s a busman’s holiday, as they say. You’re analyzing and thinking about everything, so therefore I would say it’s rare when I go to a concert that I’m transported unless the artist is someone very, very special, and I have to tell you that absolutely happened with him.”
Smith, who conducted the Spokane Symphony during a screening of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” last year, also is looking forward to “Masterworks 5” because it honors a composer he holds in the highest regard.
The concert features performances of Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7. Hadelich will perform Violin Concerto, which Smith said is one of the greatest concertos on any instrument.
“This is the heart of the repertoire,” he said. “These are pieces that hopefully every conductor, but it really depends on their training, has had great experience with.”
Smith performed “Egmont” Overture as a musician in youth orchestras and listened to Symphony No. 7 as a child captivated by the “verve and drive” in the piece. He credits German teachers with whom he studied who came from the Beethoven tradition for bringing him up on Beethoven’s works.
“As a conservatory student and then as a young conductor, this is absolutely the repertoire that I love and that I feel comfortable with,” he said. “It depends on your experience and your teacher, the repertoire that resonates with you, and absolutely Beethoven does that for me for a lot of reasons.”
According to Smith, there are three big reasons orchestras around the world continue to perform Beethoven’s works more than two centuries after his birth.
For one, he was an inspiration, in one way or another, for every composer who came after him. Many wanted to be the next Beethoven, while others decided they wanted to go in a different direction because he was such a strong force.
For another, Smith said Beethoven is the one composer who can directly communicate things like struggle, beauty and joy. “There are many composers who we’re not even talking about 100 years after their birth, but he’s the one who overcame such amazing things,” Smith said.
“Deafness at a young age, deafness for a composer is a death knell, but he has such force of will and such belief in art and belief in humankind that he overcame what would be a horribly debilitating thing.”
That leads Smith to the third reason we continue to celebrate Beethoven: He was able, partly because of his struggles to hear, to be in his own world and create pieces others couldn’t have.
“Early on, he took forms and things that his predecessors had handed down, Haydn and Mozart, but then certainly by the Seventh Symphony, by the Violin Concerto, he was transforming things form-wise and size-wise and expression-wise, exponentially growing things,” Smith said.
“That’s why he’s so important, and that’s why he’s really the standard for everything that followed him, whether he was rejected, whether he was embraced, whether people decided they needed to take another route because his voice was so strong.”
In Smith’s eyes, the fact that Beethoven’s music is still speaking to audiences in 2020, centuries removed from when the composer lived, says something about the importance and permanence of art.
Smith sees the Spokane Symphony is well-supported and highly regarded and said intentionally working to help it thrive is counter-cultural, in the best sense of the word. The symphony, for example, isn’t presenting 30-second sound bites but complete journeys.
“It’s like reading a long book,” Smith said. “We don’t sit down and read long books enough. I’m very old school when it comes to that. To be able to put on a program like this, it’s exciting for me and invigorating for myself and I think for the musicians.”
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