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James Smith of WYSO

Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra music director James Smith takes a bow with his young musicians. Smith, WYSO's music director for 32 years and director of orchestras at UW-Madison, plans to retire after a May 21 concert in Overture Hall. 

When James Smith talks about the generations of students he’s led for 32 years as music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, his tone belies a little amazement.

He’s astonished by the level of talent he sees in his young string players. He’s witnessed huge growth in WYSO in recent years, and seen the positive impact of tours its young musicians have taken to perform together around the world.

In fact, Smith seems shocked that he ever wound up conducting a youth orchestra program at at all.

“I’m lucky — I’ve had great jobs. I couldn’t have scripted my life any better than how it turned out, in many ways,” said Smith, who is retiring from WYSO after its free “Side by Side” concert with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on May 21 at the Overture Center. A special WYSO alumni tribute for Smith is also planned for Saturday.

Smith took the reins of WYSO in 1985, when the organization for high school musicians across the region consisted of three orchestras and a percussion ensemble. Today WYSO also boasts a brass ensemble, harp choir, Chamber Music Program, the Sinfonietta string orchestra, and the Opus One string orchestra for ages 8-12, launched this year. WYSO celebrated its 50th anniversary with a concert last spring in Overture Hall, where Smith conducted a finale featuring 400 WYSO musicians.

Smith is both leaving WYSO and retiring this spring from his job at UW-Madison as director of orchestras and music director of University Opera.

“I’m pulling all the plugs out of the wall to see what life’s about,” he said. “My wife (Patricia Mullins, who taught at the UW-Madison Business School) retired, and — you know, I’m 72 years old. I’m in great health. I don’t want to wait until I have trouble climbing mountains, hiking, biking, all the things that we both like to do.

“So why would I not consider that a part of my life?” Smith said. “Music’s been absorbing me since high school. It’s what I do, it’s my identity all the time.”

Smith, originally a clarinet player, grew up in Dallas, Texas. He went to London (“big culture shock,” he said) on a Fulbright, then to the Cleveland Institute of Music — where he was schooled in the importance of learning an entire orchestral score, not just an individual part. Eventually Smith discovered conducting, and in 1983 was hired as a professor of conducting by UW-Madison.

The legendary music educator Marvin Rabin — himself lured to Madison to found WYSO, one of the nation’s first regional youth orchestras — recruited Smith to lead WYSO in 1985. The two men were already good friends, but at first Smith balked at the idea.

“It was Saturdays,” Smith quipped, noting that WYSO students (and conductors) must give up their free Saturday mornings for intense ensemble sessions on the UW-Madison campus. Some students commute hours to get there each week.

“Marvin said, ‘I think you should (lead) the youth orchestra,’ and I said, ‘I’ve been to a couple of rehearsals, and they’re completely without discipline,’ ” Smith recalled.

“I tried high school orchestras as a guest conductor in New York (while teaching at State University of New York-Fredonia), and it was miserable. They could never get where I thought they could go, and I just assumed they couldn’t go there or didn’t want to. So I was much happier at the university.”

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But Rabin advised, “ ‘They do what you want them to do if you tell them why you want them to do it,’ ” Smith recounted. “ ‘If they hear the difference (in the music), then it’s downhill.’ ”

Eventually Rabin talked him into the job and “It turned out that I really liked it,” Smith said. “After you get to know them, (the young musicians) are incredibly smart. Unbelievably smart.”

They’ve also had great private music teachers in Madison, he said. “The quality of the string playing was very good then, and it’s much, much better now, and deeper — just more artistic depth.”

WYSO was already growing when he stepped in, Smith said.

“Everything seemed to be possible to do at the time we needed to do it, artistically and educationally,” he said. The frugality of WYSO’s board “used to drive me batty” but put the organization on a strong course.

At Rabin’s urging, Smith led the Youth Orchestra on its first international tour in 1989 to the British Isles. That experience was so successful that through the years the group has started touring every two years, to locations such as Taiwan, Japan, France, Spain, Canada, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Argentina and Italy.

Part of WYSO’s strength is that its players come from across the region.

“In the chamber music program … they don’t have to all be from the same neighborhood or the same school,” said Smith. “You can match up players that should be playing at a certain level, and they can actually play repertoire that they otherwise couldn’t play. So this is a learning, or artistic, growth they can have. When we think about that, and can provide it — because we have a budget to give them coaching — it’s an astonishing program.”

WYSO’s outreach programs range from its annual summer Concert in the Park to its partnership with Music Makers of Madison to mentor young musicians from underserved communities.

Smith said he’ll continue to guest conduct from time to time. He’ll remain in the Madison area; he and his wife just built a house in the country near Cross Plains.

Randal Swiggum, artistic director of the Elgin (Illinois) Youth Symphony Orchestra, will serve as WYSO interim artistic director and conductor of the Youth Orchestra next season. WYSO will begin a nationwide search for Smith’s successor in July.

“I think it’s a real tribute to a lot of people, and also to Madison, that we have such an exceptional youth orchestra,” Smith said. “We provide scholarships. We do everything we can to promote music to be part of people’s lives. So many of them go off and don’t make a career of it, but they continue to play, and they have fun doing it.”

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