Mark Russell Smith is after new audiences and full houses for the Richmond Symphony. 

Maestro for the Masses

It's only 9:30 a.m. and already the sun is blazing down on the blacktop behind the University of Richmond's Robins Center. You have to tiptoe over electrical cords snaking the ground to get a close look at the six guys — all in their early 30s and 40s — playing a hard game of basketball for the camera. Crew members recheck sound, set up equipment, rub on sunscreen and smoke endlessly through the takes.

Nobody's going over lines, though. That's because the Barber Martin agency decided for the first time in the agency's history they didn't need a script.

"This is the most electric and shootable guy we've ever had. You couldn't write better lines than what he says just off the top of his head," explains Art Director Patti Scheck.

"You call that defense?" somebody suddenly growls.

That's when you see Mark Russell Smith step forward, laughing, drenched and out of breath. He's tall and fit, bald, and a little pale in gray shorts and a black T-shirt that says, "When We Play, You Score."

"How about this instead?" he jokes after they mop his head with a paper towel. He grabs a gasping player in a headlock and pretends to punch his lights out.

"Hey, Richmond, I'm the friendly, new musical director for your symphony!"

It's true. From Minnesota — the same state that brought us Jesse Ventura as a serious politician — comes Richmond's newest artistic leader.

Mark Russell Smith's arrival ends the symphony's exhaustive two-and-a-half year national search for Mr. Right. Now it's time to see if this 38-year-old - a mere baby by industry standards - will build Richmond an over-the-top symphony that will seem as cool to a freshman at VCU as it might to his grandmother.

Times are tough for maestros. Used to be they could study masterwork scores, inspire fine musicians to greatness and enjoy a dignified awe from mere mortals. Those days are gone. Right now, there are about 850 orchestras registered with the American Symphony Orchestra League in Washington. And they are all fighting for their lives.

The dire facts: In a $15 billion industry, classical sales last year accounted for an anemic 3.5 percent of revenue, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Radio stations are dropping classical formats for talk radio or light music. That's not to mention that TV studio executives — leading the same studios that years ago employed their own orchestras for shows — have concluded that Americans think it's just plain boring to watch people in tuxedos play cellos. Add the slashing of school music programs, and you have an entire generation of Americans with near-zero exposure to classical music. It's a musical form that's dying all right, and there aren't younger audiences out there who even know enough to care.

The good news is that Richmond Symphony has spent the last 10 years doing a pretty good job of saving its neck. And it's done it by moving away from its once aloof image and providing great music in a consumer-friendly format.

Unlike a lot of other places, it's pretty easy to find the Richmond Symphony in local churches, at the library, in classrooms or sweating through free concerts in the park. Just try to score tickets for its often sold-out Kicked Back Classics concert series and you'll see. Loads of locals have started to turn out for Bach, beer and pizza.

For its trouble, the Symphony's been recognized eight times with awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers for being committed to presenting contemporary work. The true feather in its cap, though, is that it's one of only seven symphonies in the country to get funds from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to figure out how to appeal to a Generation X audience, or even bag the sit-listen-and-clap model for concert experiences.

By tapping Smith now, the Symphony thinks its found someone with musical talent at least as good as the legendary George Manahan, now at the New York City Opera. But it's also found somebody with the irresistible charisma. Somebody who'll drive up ticket sales, entice more patrons and raise the musical bar for the musicians. Somebody delusional enough to take on a job in classical music and make it thrive.

Educated as a cellist at the Juilliard School in New York and later as a conductor at the Curtis Institute of Music, Smith stands out among his musical peers for what Executive Director Michelle Walter calls an "exceptional concept of sound."

"The best way to describe it," says Anthony Kelly, a composer who worked with Smith last year, "is that it's like being able to look at a pile of sugar and slabs of butter on a table and knowing exactly what it's going to taste like before it's ever mixed."

As freakish as that talent may be, Smith's street value is based on much more. What makes average people notice him is his 100-watt smile, the gesticulations of his hands when he's talking and his quick jokes. That and the fact that he talks about himself and classical music simply, intelligently and without frills.

"Oh, yeah," he says of his concept of sound. "After years and years as a conductor, you do develop the ability to look at a piece of music and hear it all in your head. But you can't really think about that too long or it'll freak you out."

(Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)
For Smith, the stars have aligned with this new job. Like most musicians, he saw it as a good thing to take on a bigger orchestra. But what attracted him most is that he's found a place that wants to grow in a way that fascinates him. He's happy to provide traditional concertgoers with the formal Saturday through Monday performances of masterworks. But he's just as happy to talk to novices before a concert or to help wiggly third-graders understand that a life cycle in science is a lot like a cycle in music. Whether in a tux or Levi's, he's ready to woo Richmonders into loving classical music.

"It's so new for orchestras to think like this. For years and years, you know, you'd set out your season and sniff, 'Well, dear, we'll be playing at the Carpenter Center. We expect you on Saturday night.' Well, guess what? There's a hell of a lot of competition out there from jazz clubs, from movies, from the Internet. People are not going to come out to see something that they don't even know about from school! So, I'll stand on my head to get people into the hall, because I really believe that what we have is so interesting and can reach people no matter what their level of sophistication. Once they're in the hall, we've got 'em. It's my job to make sure our concerts are kick-ass enough that the music will really reach out to people. If they come and they're not won over, then it's my fault."

It's a policy that's worked for him in the past, although not completely with t bumps. To be sure he's had loads of successes, especially working with school kids, whom he considers vital as a way out of the classical-music crisis. Teach a kid to read notes, expose him to a wide variety of live music, encourage some creativity, and you guarantee yourself a future audience member.

Take his KidVid project. Working with a group of schools that were stacked with all the media bells and whistles, he decided to capitalize on technology. He chose a group of four or five really colorful short pieces, gave it to the kids and asked them to create a video.

"I didn't tell them the title, the composer — nothing. I said, 'Listen and react.' And they came up with amazing stuff. They totally captured what the composer was after. We chose the best ones and put a big screen over the orchestra and we played it live at a kids' concert. The kids in the audience weren't just sitting passively by. They created something, and they heard the orchestra connect with their creation. They did just what we in the business dream that our audiences will do: Listen, internalize it, make it their own, and create something based on that. It was so incredibly cool."

His former bosses and colleagues at the Springfield Symphony and the Cheyenne Symphony credit him lavishly for being that innovative, for boosting ticket sales and raising the local profile of their orchestras. But they also remember that his guy-next-door approach took some getting used to among more traditional patrons.

"When Mark first arrived and began working toward making the orchestra more accessible, some of our older subscribers just quit. They wanted the pure classical experience," recalls Matt Longhi, education director with the Springfield Symphony. "But what I'd say to people in Richmond is that if they can get past his earthiness and sit through the preconcert discussion thing, they can take solace in the fact that the final musical product will be incredible. The people who stuck it out here in the end were delighted with what they heard."

What they heard was the product of what most of us might call hefty sacrifices. As far as musicians go, home is where the gig is. It's a sort of gypsy existence that consists of working in one city and living in another, and hoping your family will understand.

Right now, Smith lives part time in Edina, Minn., with his wife, Ellen, a horn player with the prestigious Minnesota Symphony. They have two sons, Alexander, 6, and Noah, 3, both of whom — surprise! — already study piano and violin. Their lives include the typical frenzy of PTA meetings, soccer games, music lessons and play dates.

By necessity, it also includes frequent-flyer miles. For most of their married life, Smith and his wife have lived apart, each working in different cities: New York, Phoenix, Charleston, Fort Worth.

"The thing is, I married another musician. It was only when she got the job in Minnesota at one of the top-10 orchestras in the country that we decided, 'OK, this is the place where we'll put our clothes together.' She's as much of an artist as I am. We decided that I wasn't going to give music up, and she wasn't going to give it up, either. We were just going to have to make it work somehow. Certainly there are sacrifices."
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