Brad Smith remembers the Friday nights of his youth, when his sports-loving father would take the family out to the local high school football stadium to see the weekly big game. Brad enjoyed the trips—even though he didn’t care much for football.
“I couldn’t have cared less about football,”Smith says. “But I remember I was quite interested in what was going on with the band and anything else that was musical there.”He’s been hooked on music ever since. Last summer, Smith arrived at Penn as the new musical director and conductor for the University of Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra. In this role, Smith heads not only the orchestra, but also the University’s wind, brass and percussion ensembles. Juggling all four groups keeps him pretty busy. Most recently, Smith was readying his orchestra to perform Beethoven’s No. 7 for its Nov. 6 concert at Irvine Auditorium. Paging through the score, poring over page after page of the Beethoven masterpiece, Smith admits the job is also sometimes intimidating.
“It’s a daunting task,” he says, half-laughing. “It’s a lot to ingest.”
Q.Where does your interest in music come from?
A.I think it probably came from my mother, who was a musician. She wasn’t a professional, just amateur, but she played the piano. She would play a lot at home, and hearing it come up the stairs from the living room downstairs is a pretty vivid memory.
Q.I see you taught in public schools for four years before getting your Masters degree. Tell me about your first teaching job.
A.My first job was in Center, Texas. Center is a very small town. Ironically, it’s the center of absolutely nothing. I have two very vivid memories of that year. One is the smell, which hit you any time you stepped outdoors, because it was a big chicken-processing town. It was just this god-awful smell. The second memory is just how hard that year was. It was totally trial by fire. I hadn’t even finished student teaching yet, but they were badly in need of somebody. They actually called me while I was on vacation, at the beach, and offered the job sight unseen. ... But I took the job, and it gave me a year to get experience without a lot of pressure.
Q.What made you go back for your Master’s?
A.There was, throughout those teaching years, something sort of nagging at me, tugging at me, saying there was something unfinished. I really wanted to conduct and experience music on a higher and deeper level.
Q.How would you characterize your first year here at Penn?
A.I am much more comfortable now. I feel like things are going pretty well this year. They went well last year, too, but it was just a matter of my comfort level. I think that’s the case for any first-year conductor. But I really do enjoy being at Penn. I think the best thing about being in here is the environment.
Q.How do you mean?
A.What I mean is, being around this caliber of student, on a daily basis, is really very challenging for me. It keeps me honest, and it keeps me always working to do what I can do so I can challenge them.
Q.It seems like you have a lot to handle.
A.Yes, right now I am preparing three pieces for the orchestra, one of which is Beethoven’s No. 7, which is a major, 40-minute symphony, and another contemporary piece by a friend of mine that is 15 minutes long, but very challenging. For the wind ensemble, we are doing six or seven pieces for this concert. We’re rehearsing concurrently, back-to-back, which makes for a long night. The brass and percussion ensembles have three to six pieces each we’re working on. ... I’ve had to set my priorities and set some limits, and try to stay as focused as possible.
Q.The performances must be very rewarding, though.
A.They really are. But sometimes I think it’s more rewarding for the students than for me. What I enjoy most, I think, are the last few rehearsals, when things are finally coming together ... and we are able to come together as an orchestra and do something really magical, really wonderful. For me, I enjoy the process, and I think almost any conductor would tell you that.
Q.Is there anything about your job that would surprise people?
A.I’m continually amazed at how much time I spend alone. Score study is a very lonely thing ... Like this Beethoven No. 7—I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent on that one score. But at the same time, the study is rewarding. ... For me, the hard part is having the confidence to even approach the piece, for crying out loud. A piece like this, for instance, written by one of the top musical geniuses of all time—it’s very humbling to approach it in the first place.
Q.I’m sure it’s daunting, but being a conductor has to be a lot of fun, too.
A.I think it’s the greatest job in the world. I guess it’s a little odd that I ended up here, because my personality is fairly introverted ... And yet, three times a week here, I go stand on a box in the middle of a stage ... and try to influence what they’re doing. But it’s all how you view it. I view myself as a part of many in the orchestra. For a piece like this, they probably couldn’t do it without a conductor, but I certainly couldn’t do it without them.
Originally published on November 4, 2004